From left: Abdur Sikder, Judy Appel, Beatriz Leyva-Cutler and Norma Harrison. Photos: Courtesy
From left: Abdur Sikder, Judy Appel, Beatriz Leyva-Cutler and Norma Harrison. They are running for two seats on the school board. Photos: Courtesy

Two incumbents are facing two challengers at the polls today in two lightly contested seats on the Berkeley Unified School District.

 Beatriz Leyva-Cutler, 60, is the executive director of Bay Area Hispano Institute for Advancement, an organization that aims to provide families with bilingual learning environments. The daughter of an undocumented immigrant, born in San Francisco’s Mission District, Leyva-Cutler has served on the Board for nearly eight years and says that she is the first Latina bilingual woman to hold a seat in 25 years.

Incumbent Judy Appel 51, was Board president in 2015 and has a joint degree from UC Hastings and UC Berkeley in Law and City and Regional Planning. Appel is currently the executive director of the California School-Based Health Alliance.

According to a candidate survey Berkeleyside conducted, Leyva-Cutler and Appel are running a collaborative campaign, which “reflects the strong partnership and shared vision of the current school board to strengthen our schools with a focus on closing the racial achievement gap and building a stronger, more engaged district for all of our students.”

The race has not been a particularly expensive one: all said the candidates together have raised just over $10,000. Incumbents Appel and Leyva-Cutler have $5,662 and $4,575, according to election filings. Challenger Abdur Sikder raised $1,070 and write-in candidate Norma Harrison has not disclosed any campaign contributions.

Harrison did not fill out the Berkeleyside questionnaire, but instead gave Berkeleyside a manifesto of sorts. Sikder described himself as an entrepreneur with a background in technology and computer science. 

Incumbents have not lost a Berkeley election since 1997.

See complete 2016 Election coverage on Berkeleyside.

Appel says that though the BUSD has taken steps to close the achievement gap between African-American students, English language learning, and white students, she will push to further curb the issue. “Closing the achievement gap is pretty much at the heart of every decision we make at the Board,” she said at a candidate forum in September.

To address further concerns Appel identified several equity strategies to combat the issue such as helping teachers identify students that require assistance and direct resources to them. She also said that cultural competency among teachers and administrators will help them address “the barriers and micro-aggressions the students face.”

For her part, Leyva-Cutler said that catching equity issues early is a key part of the BUSD’s current efforts to address the problem. In 2002 she helped to form United Action, a community-based multi-ethnic coalition that aims to eliminate race-based inequalities in Berkeley public schools.

When asked, Appel also identified teacher housing as one of the serious concerns she would address should she be re-elected. She told Berkeleyside she would explore using BUSD property for housing, as well as work with the city, state and real estate developers to find more housing for teachers. This has been one of the major points City Councilman Laurie Capitelli, who is running for mayor, has also made. Appel says that she would strive to bump teacher salaries as well.

Leyva-Cutler also proposes to create a Student Attendance Review Board. Such a board meets regularly to diagnose and resolve students with behavior and attendance problems by coordinating available services. The board would be composed of parent liaisons, a homeless coordinator, counselors, safety officers, and representatives from mental health services, and a public health nurse, she said.

When asked, Appel said that her most unique proposal is making adequate mental health care for students who need it.

Sikder said his priorities if elected would be to focus on special needs children, more resources for before and after school care, and affordable housing for teachers.

Election 2016 campaign lawn signs. Photo: Kelly Owen
Election 2016 campaign lawn signs. Photo: Kelly Owen
Election 2016 campaign lawn signs. Photo: Kelly Owen
Election 2016 campaign lawn signs. Photo: Kelly Owen
Election 2016 campaign lawn signs. Photo: Kelly Owen
Election 2016 campaign lawn signs. Photo: Kelly Owen

Both Appel and Leyva-Cutler have received an endorsement from the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, the Alameda County Democratic Club, and the Alameda Labor Council, among others.

Measure E1 is also a significant issue for the two front runners. The measure would renew and increase the property tax which funds the Berkeley Schools Excellence Program (BESP). It has no organized opposition and is likely to pass, as this publication has previously reported.

A recent court ruling, which prevents commercial and residential properties from being taxed at different rates, has forced legislators to re-design the tax and, as a result, homeowners will see an increase to 37 cents per square foot from 29 cents per square foot.

Measure E1 needs a two-thirds majority to pass. Appel and Leyva-Cutler both support the measure.

Leyva-Cutler says E1 would help reduce class size, support libraries and help with the professional development of teachers.

At the moment Berkeley schools spend about $12,000 per student, compared with the state average of $8,300 per student, which is among the lowest in the nation.

Four candidates are running for two seats: Abdur Sikder (scientist/entrepreneur), Judy Appel (Berkeley School Board director), Beatriz Leyva-Cutler (incumbent) and Norma J F Harrison (write-in candidate).

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