It has not always been clear why negotiations between the city of Berkeley and the School Board for a shared meeting space at 2020 Bonar St. were unsuccessful. Photo: Kaia Diringer

At a City Council meeting in early November, Berkeley’s legislators decided they would make one last attempt to hash out a deal with Berkeley Unified to share the School Board’s meeting room. Efforts to come to such an agreement last year had floundered, keeping the council meeting in the decrepit and seismically unsafe Old City Hall building on Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

Following the unsuccessful negotiations, the city in March purchased the old Premier Cru building on University Avenue for $6.65 million with the idea of building out council chambers there. But there are other ideas about the use of the building, and the city decided to ask whether the School Board was amenable to reopening negotiations for its West Campus meeting room, requesting a determination by the end of the month. The council is meeting in a special closed session to further discuss the matter Monday at 4 p.m.

“We’re always open to negotiating with the city on this issue,” the School Board’s Ty Alper told Berkeleyside last week. “We would certainly be open to negotiating a deal that’s fair for the city and the district.”

Until some comments were made at the recent council meeting, Berkeley and the school district have been mum on why negotiations failed in the past. But it appears that attempts to move city meetings to the school district were fruitless for a few different reasons: the district’s resentment toward the city for reneging on a vow to help with West Campus renovations, the heavy meeting schedule proposed by the city, and the demand by the district that Berkeley pay $600,000 up front and an additional $100,000 per year — even though the district historically used the city’s meeting space for just $1 a year.

In an attempt to understand why Berkeley and BUSD could not reach an agreement, Berkeleyside requested records of communications between the negotiators from BUSD, as well as any proposals that were considered.

BUSD denied the request for the proposals, citing a section of the California Public Records Act exempting the disclosure of records that would hinder deliberations. The negotiations took place in closed sessions.

Emails provided to Berkeleyside by the district show that negotiations for a long-term agreement for the shared use of the West Campus room continued at least through January 2017, months after the trial period had concluded.

City and school district exchanged proposals for months

In March 2016, the City Council moved to the West Campus room, at 2020 Bonar St., for a three-month pilot. According to a School Board agenda, the council paid the district $1,200 per meeting, for the use of the facility and audio-visual equipment, plus a $5,000 security deposit. (The terms are from a 2015 agenda and may have changed by the time the trial period occurred in 2016.) Both city and district representatives said the pilot went smoothly, with few to no complaints from neighbors. The city began pursuing a long-term agreement during the trial, according to the communications provided to Berkeleyside.

On March 26, BUSD Director of Facilities Tim White emailed City Clerk Mark Numainville: “As of this email we have been directed to suspend negotiations with the [city of Berkeley] on the [long-term agreement]. I realize this is untimely for us all.” However, the process appears to have started up again shortly thereafter. White represented the district in negotiations, along with Superintendent Donald Evans and facilities committee members Stephanie Allan and Susi Marzuola. Numainville and City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley represented the other side, according to the records.

The Maudelle Shirek Building, or Old City Hall, would cost a bank-breaking $35 million to $45 million to seismically upgrade. Photo: Melati Citrawireja

On July 12, after the trial period had wrapped up, Councilwoman Linda Maio sent an email to School Board members.

“Tonight your city council is once again meeting in the old and unsafe council chambers,” she wrote. “I am well aware of the history and the circumstances regarding the city’s use of the district’s new chambers and that discussions are ongoing on how to accommodate us in your chambers. Am glad of that and look forward to a fair and equitable arrangement.” She wrote that she has supported the district through her advocacy for the soda tax, and by supporting BSEP and the Schools Fund.

“I think of ourselves (School Board and Council) as a team and trust you feel similarly,” Maio wrote, and said the Old City Hall chambers were unsafe. “I am asking each of you to recognize this and help finalize these arrangements so that we and the public do not have to continue to meet in a seismically dangerous building.” Seismic upgrades are estimated by the city to cost a bank-breaking $35 million to $45 million.

According to other emails, the city submitted proposals to BUSD in July and November 2016, and in January 2017.

Although BUSD did not release the proposals, Numainville said at the Nov. 14 City Council meeting that the final proposal required the city to pay around a $600,000 lump sum and $100,000 annually, which the city considered untenable.

Hard feelings clouded efforts to reach an agreement

People connected to the city and school district told Berkeleyside that hard feelings about events in the past played a role in preventing a deal that was agreeable to both institutions.

For years the city and school district did share a meeting room, at Old City Hall, which BUSD rented from the city for a dollar a year. In 2010, when the school district was planning renovations to its West Campus, the City Council approached the School Board about moving its meetings to the building as well. Renovating the meeting room to serve both bodies was estimated to cost between $575,000 and $1.15 million, according to the district.

“Although there was never a formal agreement, the understanding was that the cost of the project would be shared,” wrote BUSD facilities director Tim White in a memo to the School Board in 2015. However, as the renovations were getting underway in early 2012, the city pulled out. Darryl Moore, the council member at the time representing the district where West Campus is located, had fielded concerns from neighbors who feared the council meetings, which can last until midnight, would bring too much traffic and noise to the area. The lack of support from neighbors prompted the city to explore other options, but not before the district had shelled out to prepare the new meeting room.
The Berkeley School Board dais was built with nine seats to accommodate the City Council. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Some people connected to the school district said there has been some lingering resentment over having to pay for major renovations, which were funded by revenue from the 2000 facilities bond Measure AA. The district included accommodations for the city it would not have otherwise built.

The city, unable to find another space suitable for its meetings after an extensive review, approached the district again in 2015. When the city presented the School Board with its request, one person who had been involved in the district’s renovation effort cautioned the board about being too generous, saying at a meeting that “the city stiffed us.” But representatives from both sides said there was still interest in working something out at the time, and optimism that an agreement could be reached.

Premier Cru alternative could be cheaper

Eventually, said people directly and indirectly involved with the 2016 negotiations, the city’s proposed meeting schedule was the final barrier to a deal. Along with the council meetings, the city ended up wanting to move the Rent Board and Zoning Adjustments Board meetings to the site as well.

“That was the rock upon which talks floundered,” wrote Allan in a Berkeleyside comment, noting that some of the meetings would occur as early as 3 p.m., disrupting planned construction at West Campus.

“That was a sticking point,” agreed Alper, though he said the city had ultimately been the one to decide against finalizing an agreement.

BUSD has allocated funds to modernize West Campus so it can soon serve as a “swing site” for schools displaced during construction, and possibly become an elementary school itself in the future. Oxford Elementary classes may be relocated there as soon as 2018-19, although the major renovations planned for that campus have been toned down due to unexpected costs. The district also plans to shuffle (the soon to be renamed) LeConte Elementary and Berkeley High students to West Campus during projects at those schools as well.

“Even if there’s not an actual school there [next year], we are going to do construction to get it ready,” Alper said.

Premier Cru at 1011 University Ave could be renovated to house city meetings. Photo: Trachtenberg Architects

The city of Berkeley also balked at the usage fee proposed by BUSD in its final proposal, which included the $600,000 or so one-time sum, based in part on the amount unofficially promised to the district for the West Campus construction, people connected to BUSD told Berkeleyside. Representatives from the city said the amount seemed particularly high given the history of BUSD using the Old City Hall chambers for essentially nothing.

One person from the city, who asked not to be named, said the terms of the proposal made it feel like the city was considered an outside, unconnected agency looking to rent a private space, rather than a partner of the district with shared goals.

But the district is meanwhile in desperate need of funds, as it prepares to make budget cuts on the order of $1.8 million for 2018-19, to adjust to rising pension contribution obligations and other increasing costs.

Unlike during previous West Campus negotiations, the city does have an alternative option this go-round. Designs have been drawn up to convert the 1011 University Ave. Premier Cru building, which housed a wine shop that shuttered amid scandal, to council chambers. At its last meeting, the council discussed whether to set aside $1.7 million for that buildout. If the council met there for at least five years, it would be cheaper to use Premier Cru than to rent from the school district, city staff said.

But because Premier Cru is just blocks away from the School Board meeting room, and because the city wants to build affordable housing there in the future, a majority of council members voted to knock on BUSD’s door one more time — asking for a better deal.

Councilwoman Susan Wengraf told Berkeleyside this week that she believes a fresh start at negotiations could be successful.

“I am hopeful that the BUSD will cooperate with the city and that we can come to an agreement about the use of the meeting room at the West Campus site that is within the city’s budget,” she said. “I hope that any bad feelings that developed during this process can be put behind us and that we can move forward in a positive and productive way.”

Correction: This story previously said negotiators from the city and BUSD planned to meet Monday. Only the City Council will be at that meeting. 

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Natalie Orenstein

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,...