School children campaigning for Measure E1 at the Solano Stroll last month. Photo: Yes on Measure E1 Campaign
School children campaigning for Measure E1 at the Solano Stroll in September. Photo: Yes on Measure E1 Campaign

Since 1986, Berkeley public schools have benefited from smaller class sizes, libraries, music and arts instruction thanks to the infusion of funds from the Berkeley Schools Excellence Program (BSEP). The parcel tax has been renewed with voter support in 1994, 2004 and 2006. If past elections are any guide, Measure E1 to renew BSEP should pass the two-thirds majority hurdle with ease at next Tuesday’s election.

E1 has no organized opposition, but a California appeals court ruling has forced a significant change in the design of the tax this time. Previous BSEP measures had higher tax rates for commercial property than for residential property. Differential tax rates on a parcel tax are no longer allowed, so Berkeley home owners will see a steep tax increase from the current 29 cents per square foot to 37 cents per square foot if E1 passes.

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“The BSEP campaign is a once in a decade coming together of the community to say we know the state has been divesting in public education for years,” said Ty Alper, a Berkeley School Board member and one of the leaders of the campaign. “We’re going to come together to make sure that kids in the Berkeley schools have small classes, have support for struggling students, have music, even if the state doesn’t provide that. People understand the increase. They know that we didn’t have a choice in terms of the court ruling. This isn’t a money grab.” 

According to the school district, the requirement to move to a uniform rate for commercial and residential property accounts for about half of the 27.5% increase for home owners. State-mandated benefit costs account for most of the rest of the increase.

According to Alper, Berkeley residents have asked about the tax increase but it doesn’t seem like a major issue on the doorstep. Alper said the school district’s series of community meetings earlier this year to discuss BSEP and the district’s plans had been very effective outreach.

“It almost doesn’t feel like a political campaign,” he said. “When we go canvassing it’s like a love fest.”

If passed, BSEP is forecast to raise about $28 million, or 20% of the total school district budget. Because of the BSEP funds, Berkeley schools spend about $12,000 per student per year, close to the national average (California’s average is $8,300, one of the worst in the country).

This year’s BSEP measure provides funding in three areas. About two-thirds of the revenues enable smaller class sizes (BSEP funds 30% of the teachers in Berkeley schools), professional development, classroom support, educational program evaluation and expanded course offerings for before- and after-school classes at the middle and high schools. About 27% of the revenues fund libraries in every school, music and visual and performing arts programs in the 4th-8th grades, instructional technology and school site funds. A further 7% of revenues provides funding for student achievement programs, middle school counseling and family engagement programs.

A planning and oversight committee with representatives from every school site regularly reviews and discusses all BSEP plans, budgets and reports. There are also independent external auditors who review the expenditures to ensure that funds are spent and accounted for in accordance with the terms of the measure.

One of the major boasts of BSEP is reduced class sizes in Berkeley. The current goal has been 20 students kindergarten through third grade and 26 in fourth and fifth grade. The new plan is to aim for an average of 23 across kindergarten through fifth grade.

“We will still have some of the smallest class sizes in the state, if this measure passes,” Alper said. “Not having a cliff from third to fourth grade will reduce the number of combination classes which parents and teachers don’t like. I think it’s a good compromise.”

The goal for middle and high school remains unchanged at an average of 28 students per class.

If the BSEP renewal passes, the term of the tax would be eight years, down from the 10 years since the passage in 2006.

“There was a sense that maybe it was more responsible to come back to the voters two years sooner,” Alper said.

Address verification work continues for Berkeley Unified (10.20.16)
BSEP meetings lay groundwork for November vote (02.25.16)

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Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...