Students eating lunch at Malcolm X Elementary School. Photo: Mark Coplan/BUSD

As Berkeley Unified works out its 2017-18 budget, the district is already planning ahead for potential major cuts in the following academic year.

BUSD is among many districts across the state scrambling to stay afloat amid increasing pension costs. With the state’s public employee and teacher retirement funds, CalPERS and CalSTRS, facing serious shortfalls, districts’ mandated retirement contribution costs are soaring. Berkeley schools also experienced a drop in enrollment this year, though the district expects to begin restoring it next year.

Without making any cuts, BUSD is looking at a $1.2 million structural deficit in 2018-19, according to the district. That amount could change depending on the state budget.

“Right now we do have a balanced budget and we do have a reserve,” said Javetta Cleveland, BUSD deputy superintendent. “We said, ‘Let’s prepare and let’s be strategic.’ We’re trying to get ahead of [the deficit].”

One major expense the district is keeping on the table, however, is the proposed plan to overhaul the ninth-grade program at Berkeley High School. The Berkeley School Board will have a public hearing on the BHS redesign proposal at Wednesday’s meeting, before voting on it in June. If it passes, the redesign will be implemented beginning in 2018-19 at a projected annual cost of $550,000.

Other new or increasing expenses under consideration, or required, in the next two years include rising special education costs, a few new staff positions, Chromebooks for students, and a restructuring of the nutrition services department. The district purchased three new school buses last year and plans to buy two more in 2017-18. Plans to buy additional buses the following year have been put on hold.

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Among the potential cuts floated for 2017-18 and 2018-19 are a reduction in staffing at Berkeley Technology Academy, where enrollment has declined; cut-backs at the district’s central office; reduced contributions to the reserve for future retiree health benefits; reductions in counselor positions and safety officers at BHS; a reduction to the child development program; and the elimination of the dean of attendance position. Some board members are wary of cutting the attendance dean. The dean, a fairly new position, has helped increase daily attendance, which determines the amount of state revenue the district receives.

At the May 3 School Board meeting, Board Member Josh Daniels said the list of potential slashes was thoughtfully crafted.

“No one’s excited about having to make these cuts, but this is why we’re here in part, why we ran for office — to make these difficult decisions,” he said. “These are actually cuts that will help us balance the budget.”

(Watch the portion of the School Board meeting where the 2017-18 budget priorities and 2018-19 cuts are discussed.)

BUSD is hardly the only California school district feeling the squeeze. Oakland is expecting to fall $10 million short this academic year and is preparing for major cuts in the next academic year.

Berkeley benefits from the rare cushion of its parcel tax. The Berkeley Schools Excellence Program, renewed with overwhelming voter support in 2016, brings in $25 to $30 million a year, making up a far larger share of the district’s total revenue than parcel taxes in most other districts.

“BSEP is definitely important,” Cleveland said. “It does help us with lower class sizes. It funds its share of teacher salary increases, but it doesn’t fund things outside of the measure.” Revenue from the tax also supports enrichment programs like libraries, technology and music, which are generally some of the first programs to go when districts need to make cuts.

The Longfellow Middle School jazz band in 2011. Berkeley’s parcel tax supports its music program. Photo: Doris Moskowitz
The Longfellow Middle School jazz band in 2011. Berkeley’s parcel tax supports its music program. Photo: Doris Moskowitz

This would not be the first time in recent history that BUSD and other districts have needed to slash budgets. Many districts are still recuperating from the last recession. BUSD has not reinstated everything that was cut during that period, Cleveland said.

“We got through those years,” she said. “We’ve made cuts and stayed as far away from the classroom as possible. There were no really big layoffs.”

At the May 3 School Board meeting, the president of the teachers’ union asked the board to spare staff if big cuts become necessary.

In her address to the board, Cathy Campbell noted that the district’s current lists of budget priorities and potential cuts do not yet factor in cost-of-living wage increases.

“We hope you will keep strongly in your mind the need to compensate, value and retain your hardworking employees,” Campbell said. She asked the board to prioritize employee compensation and raises, even if that means making even larger cuts in other areas.

The Berkeley Federation of Teachers is in the middle of contract negotiations with the district, and many of its members flooded the May 3 meeting in an energetic demonstration that ended in song. Many spoke in support of increased preparation time for teachers in grades one to three.

The School Board will pass the 2017-18 budget by the end of June.

If cuts are needed in 2018-19, there will be an extensive consideration process beforehand, Cleveland said. The Superintendent’s Budget Advisory Committee, a group of BUSD staff and community members established to come up with recession-era budget cut recommendations, would be heavily involved in the process, she said.

This article has been updated to remove an incorrect statement that state revenue is decreasing. 

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...