Several red-clad people stand outside the gate to a courtyard, holding tall signs shaped like sunflowers. One has a huge sign that says, "Keep teachers in Berkeley."
Berkeley teachers ushered their colleagues into Wednesday’s School Board meeting, where officials made budget cuts and launched contract negotiations. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Chop, chop

The School Board room had emptied out Wednesday night by the time officials sheared close to $2 million from the $157 million district budget.

Most of the cuts — the second round of major reductions in as many years — had already been determined at a previous meeting.

Some of the biggest savings came from slashing a $135,000 district-level education services position, which is currently vacant, and moving transitional kindergarten classes back to K-5 school sites from their preschool campuses ($100,000).

Many large costs, like the $300,000 supporting the universal ninth grade program, were shuffled out of the district’s general fund, becoming the responsibility of the Berkeley Schools Excellence Program — the parcel tax supporting the district — or the Local Control Accountability Plan. Some of those programs and positions, like the two Berkeley High counselor jobs that cost $200,000, are now only guaranteed funding for one more year. Board members expressed reservations about “punting” those decisions to the next budget cycle.

On Wednesday, the board cut the district’s travel budget further, totaling $100,000 in reductions, and set a goal of $10,000 in waste reduction and energy savings.

Officials backed away from the most controversial cut left on the table Wednesday, one of the district’s three mechanic positions. Only board member Ty Alper supported the $84,000 cut. District staff had pushed for the reduction, insisting that the eight new electric buses coming soon to BUSD would require less maintenance than the current fleet.

Mechanics, along with other board members, said that would be a risky bet and could endanger students.

Board members said they felt confident the district could make up for the lost mechanic savings by raising facility rental fees for the first time in years.

As of next year, transitional kindergarten programs will no longer be located at BUSD’s preschool campuses. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Not even the anxious mechanics who came to Wednesday’s meeting stuck around long enough to find out their fates.

“It’s a testament to our staff and the process that there are not hundreds of people here,” Alper said.”Of course they’re upset, but they’re not here screaming at us, because they know they’ve had an opportunity to be heard.”

The vote capped off a budget process that began months ago, with public meetings and plenty of draft proposals. Several initially controversial suggestions — including cuts to the family engagement office and homelessness services — were seriously scaled back or eliminated after people complained.

Some providers of after-school programs were incensed when they received a letter earlier this year saying they’d be charged, for the first time, for the students bused to them from BUSD schools. The board tried to do damage control, apologizing to the programs for the shock and asking staff to revisit how the charge was calculated. On Wednesday, the board authorized a charge of up to $100,000 annually, split among the programs, and exempted programs serving mostly low-income families.

Officials say Berkeley, like other districts making cuts across the state, is feeling the pressure of rising pension obligations, and special education and healthcare costs.

Wednesday, Superintendent Donald Evans, who’s retiring at the end of the year, said a third straight year of budget cuts is likely.

For now, the board will turn its attention to new expenses, and approve the full 2019-20 budget by the end of June.

Union contracts, pizza

Dozens of people are seated in a meeting room. Several are kids. One has a big sign that says, "Keep teachers in Berkeley."
Hundreds of teachers and supporters crowded into the School Board meeting on March 13, 2019. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Former School Board member Josh Daniels liked to joke about “the thousands” watching board meetings at home on YouTube, knowing the actual number could probably be counted on two hands.

There weren’t thousands at Wednesday’s meeting, but hundreds of Berkeley teachers and community members did squeeze into the room and overflowed out through the courtyard.

The occasion: the kick-off of union contract negotiations.

This year, the Berkeley Federation of Teachers is asking for higher wages and smaller caseloads for special education teachers.

Berkeley negotiations are beginning on the heels of a week-long strike in Oakland and, before that, in Los Angeles. The momentum from teacher movements statewide and nationally likely helped draw the energetic crowds that showed up to Wednesday’s board meeting. The slices of pepperoni and veggie pizza distributed during a pre-meeting rally probably helped too.

“Our job is educating students but we can’t do this to the best of our ability with financial insecurity,” Matt Meyer, Berkeley High teacher and BFT vice president, shouted through a megaphone during the rally. His colleagues have shared story after story at recent board meetings of taking on second and third jobs, living with roommates long into adulthood, and giving up basic necessities.

Later in the evening, board members said they also think teachers are underpaid.

“Our employees should not have to worry living paycheck to paycheck,” said Beatriz Leyva-Cutler.

Officials and teachers could agree on one culprit: California woefully — “criminally,” according to Alper — underfunds public education, they said. Analyses have placed California at 41st in the U.S. for per-pupil funding. The board and local educators have endorsed a 2020 state ballot item that would reform Proposition 13, raising some commercial property taxes and bringing in more money for schools.

“I think it’s one of the moral outrages of our time, as well as one of our greatest policy failures, that the professionals who teach and care for our children every day are not among the very highest paid members of our society,” Alper said.

He told teachers that the board is in a tough spot: “Every 1% raise across all of our employees costs the district about $1 million…it’s just the reality of what’s at stake.” But, he said, “We can absolutely march hand-in-hand to Sacramento to demand more funding for public education.”

Stage of the art

Berkeley High School, March 2018. Photo: Nancy Rubin
Berkeley High School received a large donation of audio equipment. Photo: Nancy Rubin

Students can take stagecraft classes along with their typical math and English at Berkeley High. But some of the equipment they’re currently learning to operate is quite old.

Next year’s participants will instead train on the products of a recent gift worth $123,450 to the district’s Career Technical Education (CTE) program. Meyer Sound Laboratories, based in Berkeley, donated the sound equipment.

“We are jaw-dropped,” said Stephanie Allan, the district’s CTE adviser.

Allan and Eugene Palmer — UC Berkeley’s theater supervisor, who’s helping write the stagecraft curriculum — approached Meyer Sound not too long ago to request a donation. Co-founder Helen Meyer’s children went to Berkeley High — including one who’s on the CTE advisory board, according to Allan. Allan and Palmer asked Meyer if the company could donate any equipment for the Little Theater. The stage there supports most Berkeley High productions, and will likely host even more when the neighboring Community Theater goes under construction soon.

Meyer asked the CTE folks for a wish-list, and, to their surprise, delivered every item on it, Allan said.

“What they gave us was state-of-the-art audio equipment. It makes both the performing and stage-hand part of it exciting and real,” she said. “The support for our programs from both industry and community is overwhelming to us.”

A spokeswoman from Meyer Sound, Jane Eagleson, declined to comment on the specifics of the gift, but said, “We support many of the arts activities in the Bay Area. We try to give back as best we can.”

School districts across the state and nation have embraced CTE in recent years. Berkeley is no outlier, offering course sequences in fire science, carpentry and biotechnology.

“We have the first shop at Berkeley High since the 1980s,” Allan said. “They’re making things for other classes in the school. They’ll ask, ‘Can you make us a table?'” 

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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,...