The Berkeley School Board is set to make significant 2018-19 budget cuts, including at least two of Berkeley High’s safety officers. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Update, Feb. 22, 10:45 a.m. During a long meeting Wednesday night, the Berkeley School Board finalized its package of cuts for 2018-19, sparing some of the most controversial proposed reductions, and coming out just several thousand dollars shy of the $1.8 million cut target.

In addition to the reductions selected earlier in the month, the board decided to slash $50,000 from the homeless student materials fund, transfer an additional $39,000 to the Berkeley Schools Excellence Program and cut an extra $25,000 each from the district’s consulting and legal costs. The specific homeless supplies money that was cut has not been spent in several years. Some board members said they were hesitant to bank on the consulting and legal fee reductions, since the costs are somewhat out of their control and dependent on unpredictable lawsuits.

The board also decided to relocate the King Child Development Center transitional kindergarten classes to a K-12 school site — but not until 2021. The initial proposal to transfer the classes next year was met with pushback from teachers who said they have been made to restructure their program multiple times recently.

Advocates for the various programs and positions on the chopping block flooded the board meeting room Wednesday, begging the board to make “no cuts to school sites.” Several members of the public implored the board to keep the full roster of safety officers at Berkeley High, some bringing up the devastating mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida last week. The board had agreed to cut two of the officers last meeting, and ultimately decided against cutting a third Wednesday.

After the nearly two-hour discussion on the cuts, the board postponed a scheduled decision on new expenditures. The new costs could require additional cuts, but the board members will take up the matter in April, when enrollment numbers will be out and they will have a better idea of the amount of new revenue to expect.

Original story, Feb. 9 At its meeting Wednesday night, the Berkeley School Board selected nearly all of the $1.8 million it plans to slash from the district’s 2018-19 budget. At the Feb. 21 meeting in two weeks, the board will pick $200,000 in additional expenses to cut and hold a final vote on the whole package.

Among the programs and positions placed on the chopping block Wednesday were two safety officers from Berkeley High, as well as district-wide expenses including part-time special-assignment teachers, legal and consulting fees, transportation repair funds, a behavior specialist position that is currently vacant and other other costs.

The decision on Feb. 21 will wrap up Berkeley Unified’s months-long effort to identify almost $2 million in savings for next year. The board decided to make the painful cuts in the face of a nearly $1 million structural deficit, created in part by ballooning pension obligations and other rising expenses affecting many districts throughout the state.

The board had already approved $424,000 of the upcoming reductions at previous meetings, including cutting and consolidating positions at Berkeley’s continuation school and independent studies program.

Initially, the School Board expected this round of cuts to be followed by even more next year, but President Josh Daniels said Wednesday that unexpected education dollars in the governor’s latest budget proposal seem to provide enough of a cushion to stop the slashing after this year.

On Wednesday, the board received separate, though similar, lists of recommended cuts from the superintendent, district staff and a budget advisory committee.

“This is a very stressful discussion in many ways for a lot of people in the community,” said Assistant Superintendent Pasquale Scuderi, presenting the proposed cuts to the board. “It’s not an easy discussion for staff as well, and we realize there are programs and people on the end of a lot of these difficult discussions.”

As the recommendations were developed, parents and school employees called on the district to cut mostly from the central office, sparing school sites and staff wherever possible.

Superintendent Donald Evans announced Wednesday that he was removing some of the most contentious proposals —  including eliminating the vice principal at Malcolm X Elementary and the dean of attendance at Berkeley High — from his list of recommend cuts. The board still has the authority to cut those positions if it wants, but given the consensus on many other cuts Wednesday, it looks unlikely to do so.

Before the superintendent made his comment, Malcolm X families and staff filled almost half of the board meeting room Wednesday to protest the potential elimination of their vice principal. With around 550 students, Malcolm X is the district’s largest elementary school, and the speakers said the administrator plays an important, multi-faceted role in supporting teachers and students. After some of those students made a public comment at the meeting, they delivered valentines to the board members at the dais, asking them to keep their vice principal.

Ariana Braga, a new teacher at Malcolm X, said the accessibility of the administrators is what attracted her to the job and enables her and her students’ success, especially when an individual kid needs extra help she cannot provide in class.

“Working at a school that functions well is crucial to recruiting and retaining quality teachers,” she said.

Two of the youngest people to protest a proposed elimination of the Malcolm X vice principal display valentines they gave board members. Photo: Leah Simon-Weisberg

Many had also questioned the logic of cutting the dean of attendance at Berkeley High. Average daily attendance is the primary determinant of the amount of state funding allocated to a school, and the dean position was created to boost the numbers at BHS.

Also removed from the recommendation list, and replaced with the behavior specialist cut, was a clerical worker supporting special education. Staff said it had become clear that the department, which will get a new director next year, needs the administrative support.

The district has cited rising special education costs as a contributing factor in its dire financial situation. At Wednesday’s board meeting, speakers said more, not fewer, resources are needed for special education. Parents from a Cragmont Elementary classroom said staff and families are at a loss over how to manage serious behavioral issues and bullying there, for example. A recent independent evaluation commissioned by BUSD found widespread fiscal incoherencies throughout the special education system.

The proposal to cut safety officer positions from Berkeley High has also been met with some protest. But the board said Wednesday it would pursue eliminating two safety officer positions at the high school. A third officer cut will be under consideration Feb. 21, and the board might choose to transfer that officer to King Middle School. Currently Berkeley High has 15 officers.

“This is where it begins to get hard, and we’re talking about people we know… reductions that our students begin to feel on a day to day basis,” Daniels said as the board considered cutting the officers. But the drop in suspensions at Berkeley High and other circumstances would make the cut less devastating than others, he said.

Earlier in the week, the Berkeley High Parent-Teacher Association released interviews it conducted with BHS safety officers. In them, the officers describe a range of safety issues that can arise on and around campus, and say they are well-trained in deescalating situations before they erupt. With the cuts, one says, the remaining officers would be spread thinly around the campus and might have to rely on teachers and other adults to break up fights or provide other support.

“Our role has always been more than just being about safety,” long-time officer Eric Riley said in the interview. “Kids can fall through the cracks because the school is so big. We safety officers do a lot of counseling in the process of conflict mediation. We know a lot about kids that their parents don’t know because we’re on the front lines.”

Another proposal that inspired frustrated public comments Wednesday was the suggestion of moving the transitional kindergarten classes at King Child Development Center back to K-5 school sites. That transition is expected to save the district $50,000. A transitional kindergarten teacher sternly told the board she is sick of relocating her classroom, and often spending her own time and money to rebuild it, when there is no long-term plan for the program. The board said it would need more information before making that cut.

The board is also planning to transfer up to $450,000 in general fund costs to the Berkeley Schools Excellence Program (BSEP), the parcel tax last included on the Berkeley ballot as Measure E1. If the board decides to make those transfers, the decision would need to go through committee and there would need to be reductions in BSEP spending on existing programs to make up for it.

See the full list of recommended reductions, and watch the board decide which to include on the list.

Amid cuts, new costs on the table too

Along with the cuts, staff is still asking the School Board to consider approving some new expenditures for next year.

The Berkeley School Board listened to public comment on Feb. 7 before discussing budget cuts. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

On Wednesday, board member Judy Appel asked staff whether the new expenses would necessitate even larger cuts. Pauline Follansbee, interim assistant superintendent of business services, said they might. The district has a policy of maintaining a 3% reserve.

“Every year we talk about what new priorities we want to fund. This year should be no different,” Daniels said. “That doesn’t mean we have to fund them. What that means is we then have to decide… do we think that those priorities are any more important than what we’re doing now?”

“Staff understands that significant needs and challenges arise throughout the district annually irrespective of fiscal challenges,” said a document prepared for the board. This is the first budgeting process led by Follansbee, alongside Scuderi, following the departure of Javetta Cleveland from the district last year.

Some of the largest of the new proposed costs are $509,000 for Common Core implementation (that process is concluding), $300,000 for K-8 literacy instruction, $180,000 to help Thousand Oaks transition out of its dual-immersion program through 2020-21 and $144,000 for two-years of a part-time ninth-grade math coordinator. The board already approved a major overhaul of Berkeley High’s ninth-grade program last year, which is expected to cost more than $500,000 annually once it goes into effect next year.

The staff proposal also includes $102,000 for the salary and benefits of a bilingual support teacher, or long-term substitute, at LeConte Elementary. Parents and teachers there have said the bilingual education program is significantly disrupted when teachers are out for long periods. District staff said the new expense is expected to be offset by the roughly $50,000 that would be saved in subbing costs. There are also two new $60,000 clerical positions proposed, supporting the K-8 schools director and the Title IX coordinator.

There is some potential new revenue flowing in, while could alleviate some of the pain. After negotiations fell apart last year, the district is once again in talks with the city of Berkeley to potentially rent out its meeting room to the City Council, which would bring in funds.

The district’s maintenance director has replaced lightbulbs throughout BUSD with LEDs, which is expected to produce $60,000 in savings.

Union leaders and community members respond

The teachers union has criticized the district for making these cuts without factoring in future raises for teachers. President Cathy Campbell has said enough cuts should be made to leave ample room for increased compensation.

Meanwhile, the classified staff union has reached an impasse with the district, which has reportedly offered the union only a one-time 1% bonus, instead of a raise or larger increase.

Paula Phillips, the president of the staff union, was not the only person Wednesday to describe the hard work of her members.

“For changing a 12-year-old student’s diaper day in and day out, for cleaning up vomit day in and day out, for sitting quietly while being cussed out, for being spit on and hit on,” a special education aide could only receive a $222 bonus next year under the proposed contract, according to Phillips. She implored the district to produce a contract that takes into account the rising cost of living and healthcare costs.

Also Wednesday, some members of the public criticized the district for what they described as an opaque budget process and one that dismissed parents’ opinions in favor of blanket acceptance of staff recommendations.

Appel said that was an unfair representation.

“I totally understand there can always be more process,” she said, but “I feel like the process has actually been very rich, and as a result I think a lot of the things the community has felt are very important to our students have been taken off the list.”

Outcry over proposals to reduce counselor positions at Berkeley High put an end to that suggestion. The elimination of a Washington Elementary safety monitor, who oversees the large, split-campus school, was also taken off the list after families protested.

There is one more opportunity for public comment at the Feb. 21 School Board meeting, which will be dedicated to finalizing the budget.

Correction: This article initially stated that one of Malcolm X’s vice principals could be cut. There is only one vice principal at the school. 

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,...