Berkeley High School. Photo: Jeremy Franklin

By Karen Laws

A budget unanimously approved by the Berkeley High BSEP (Berkeley Schools for Excellence Project) site committee on March 21 will provide salaries for both college counselors, 100% of the supplies for art classes, beakers and flasks for chemistry labs, and much more. With student enrichment proposals valued at nearly $230,000 over the $774,454 the committee had to spend for the 2011-12 school year, it’s no wonder the budget meeting lasted six hours.

Depending on whether windows in the cramped, below-street-level room were cranked open or shut, the 15 members, including Principal Pasquale Scuderi, endured alternately freezing and stifling conditions as they debated and voted.

Arguments against continuing to fund a professional drummer (known as “Papa” by students) for the school’s popular Afro-Haitian dance classes were countered by a reminder that arts funding represents a tiny percentage of the overall budget. Papa’s salary was approved.

With worthy programs barely making the cut, others funded only partially, and still others (such as freshmen soccer coaches) zeroed out, some members of the parent community went away angry and at least one committee member was close to tears. As a veteran member drily observed, “No one ever walks out of here happy.”

Recent gun incidents have focused public attention on safety at the high school. As it has for the past several years, the site committee directed about 20% of its budget to On Campus Intervention, a clearing house for discipline. With funding for counseling and Student Court, OCI fights against the “detention to prison pipeline” typical of many urban high schools.

“Disruptive students are often among the neediest,” maintains BSEP Committee Co-Chair Allen King, who sees the $144,227 budgeted for OCI as consistent with the committee’s mission “to make the school environment a better place for students to learn”.

During budget deliberations, teacher reps noted that students often choose to go to OCI in order to cool off. According to one student offender who came to speak on behalf of Student Court, an essay-writing component of his alternative consequence plan “changed me as a person”. By contrast, he described the typical student response to a friend’s suspension: “People glorify that kind of stuff.”

BSEP last came before Berkeley voters in 2006 (Measure A), earning a 10-year extension with an 80% approval rate. The original 1986 parcel tax legislation mandates a uniquely democratic process for deciding how the money — now 20% of Berkeley Unified’s budget — is spent. School enrichment programs receive $228/pupil (or 10% of the total). At each campus, parents elect representatives to a site committee that includes elected teachers, administration, and staff. Berkeley High students are entitled to the same number of representatives as teachers and parents.

Last year’s committee faced concerns ranging from how well elections were publicized, to a lack of diversity in the candidate pool, to insufficient student participation. While gaining ground in these areas, it also developed a rubric used to evaluate each funding proposal according to similar criteria.

New this year is an improved process for programs seeking renewed funding and rules to facilitate participation in meetings — “so everyone gets a chance to air their views”, as Co-Chair Héctor Cárdenas puts it.

After nine years of service, King — whose eldest child graduated from Berkeley High last year — has sworn off running again. Cárdenas, a freshman parent, has offered to serve as Chair if re-elected. He’d like to create a map of resources and needs so that the budget can be developed according to a coherent strategy rather than an up-or-down vote on specific items.

It’s a commendable goal that will take time to achieve — it’s a good thing Cárdenas’ youngest child is just six months old.

Karen Laws has been a parent representative on the Berkeley High BSEP site committee since 2008. Follow her on Twitter @karenlaws.

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