Community members and teachers have pushed the district to avoid making cuts directly to school programs. Photo: Nancy Rubin

With Oakland Unified poised to make controversial school closures amid a looming teacher strike, Berkeley’s task of cutting $2 million from its budget might look small in comparison.

But there is little wiggle room in the district’s $157 million total budget, said staff who presented initial reduction proposals to the Berkeley School Board at its Wednesday meeting.

“It’s not lost on us that there are programs and people impacted by these decisions,” said Associate Superintendent Pasquale Scuderi.

Such refrains have been cold comfort for employees and families in the past, but this year’s proposals look to be far less controversial than the equivalent recommendations last year. In its 2018-19 budget, the School Board cut $1.8 million — including safety officers at Berkeley High and teachers at Berkeley Technology Academy — then in June directed staff to come up with another $2 million for 2019-20. The board plans to make its final decisions in March.

The district attributes the necessity of the cuts to the pressures of increasing pension and healthcare obligations, rising special-education costs and a state education funding model that puts California in the bottom third nationwide — issues many districts are currently grappling with. The teachers union is also asking for higher compensation next year, with many teachers speaking out about the challenges of living in the Bay Area on their salaries.

BUSD families and staff have not argued with the need to make reductions, but have put pressure on the district to avoid making cuts to schools and classrooms, sparing the costs that most directly affect children.

Before the proposals made their way to the board, they went through several iterations, between staff edits and meetings of the superintendent’s budget advisory committee — a group of district employees and community members.

One of the biggest items on the current cuts list is the restructuring of the district’s Ed Services department. Mainly, staff said Wednesday, that would entail eliminating the currently vacant program director position previously held by Pat Saddler for five years before she left for a superintendent job elsewhere. The savings are expected to total $135,000.

That cut was made so the district central office would shoulder a large share of the cuts, but “it makes me nervous in my position,” Scuderi, who heads up that division, told Berkeleyside on Thursday. Saddler oversaw numerous programs.

District administrators Pauline Follansbee (left) and Pasquale Scuderi propose budget cuts to the School Board. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Additional vacant positions are on the chopping block too. But one of the most contentious cuts is to a role that is currently filled — one of the district’s three vehicle mechanics.

One of those mechanics, Yazid Kahil, told the board Wednesday, “We’re already understaffed.”

He said the district’s fleet of buses, most 20 or 10 years old, require more attention, by industry standards, than his crew is able to provide.

“It puts the kids in jeopardy, the drivers, and the community,” Kahil said. “If any of these buses — 26,000 pounds — is coming down from the Berkeley Hills, I don’t think anything will stop it.”

Pauline Follansbee, BUSD assistant superintendent of business services, said the district is awaiting the arrival of several new buses, including some that are electric.  

“We think with the reduction of the mechanic we’ll still be safe,” she said. That cut would save $84,000.

The relocation of the transitional kindergarten program back to K-5 school sites and reductions in staff travel expenses should each save the district another $50,000, according to staff.

Other major reductions initially floated — to the office of family engagement and the McKinney-Vento homelessness services — prompted outcry. Parents and employees said those services help BUSD’s most vulnerable students, and it would be short-sighted to strip those budgets. In response, staff scaled down or removed those proposed reductions.

Currently, the superintendent is recommending cutting the district-level coordinator of the family engagement program ($127,000), and shuffling the rest of the costs to the Local Control Accountability Plan, a separate fund that must be used to support vulnerable populations. The staff that work at schools would keep their jobs but would report up to the principals at those campuses instead of a district boss.

Under the current proposal, the McKinney-Vento services would remain intact, but would similarly become the responsibility of the LCAP.

One of the more controversial cuts: a school bus mechanic position. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Those costs are among many the district is proposing to shuffle between funds or move out of the BUSD general fund, including $300,000 in support for the universal ninth grade program. That would instead be covered by the Berkeley Schools Excellence Program (BSEP), the special tax most recently approved by voters as Measure E1 in 2016.

Natasha Beery, the BSEP director, described the history of Berkeley Unified budgeting as “a dance between BSEP and general fund, in terms of who was taking care of what” — depending on the state of the economy and the health of the district’s budget.

Currently, BSEP is benefiting from a cost-of-living increase to the tax rate and a strong existing balance, so staff has proposed it take up the extra costs, including two Berkeley High counselors ($200,000).

Some board members said they were a bit wary of pushing those programs and positions — “punting” them, said Julie Sinai — into these other funds, where they’ll only be guaranteed coverage for one year.

“I feel like we should be saying to the community, ‘We’re cutting these two counselors. For one year we’re going to fund them. We should be transparent about that,’” said Ty Alper.

“It’s absolutely a legitimate concern,” Scuderi told Berkeleyside. “But another way we’re looking at it is it gives us more time to be creative,” to figure out an alternative way to save the program or “to mitigate the impact of an eventual cut,” rather than slashing it from the outset.

Alper also encouraged staff to explore more ways to bring in new revenue or cut costs next year. He brought up the district’s new Sustainability Plan, which encourages cutting back on waste and energy consumption and consequently cutting costs. The district could also look at increasing its rental property fees, he said.

BUSD had at one point expected to draw in some new revenue from renting out the School Board meeting room to the city. But the final agreement, staff said Wednesday, was to set a fee that would be “cost-neutral,” not making a profit for the district. 

The district is also counting on $100,000 in new fees from private after-school programs. Currently, BUSD buses students to those outside programs at no cost to the providers, but the district wants to start charging them. The initial proposal came as a shock to many of the programs, some of which are nonprofits or small organizations. At first, the requested fees were as high as $73,000 or $37,000 annually per program, but in the wake of the criticism, they were reduced to around $10,000 or $5,000.

The board is set to discuss budget cuts again at its Feb. 20 meeting and take a final vote in March. The full 2019-20 budget must be approved by the end of June.

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,...