A new tax on the March 2020 ballot could fund Berkeley teacher and staff salaries. Photo: Emilie Raguso

California’s primary election is earlier next year — March instead June. And there won’t only be approximately one million presidential candidates on your ballot.

The Berkeley Unified School District is asking voters to approve three separate measures March 3, to fund everything from plumbing fixes to theater renovations to science teacher salaries. Two of the measures — the maintenance tax and facilities bond — will look familiar to longtime Berkeley residents. For all voters, the third measure — the “Educator Recruitment and Retention tax” (bureaucrats have a way with words) — will be brand new.

At its Nov. 20 meeting, the Berkeley School Board unanimously approved each of the measures. The PTA Council has endorsed the batch as well, and you’re likely to see the Berkeley Federation of Teachers pounding the pavement to get the new tax approved too.

The two taxes and general obligation bond would all affect property owners in Berkeley, who also pay another much larger BUSD tax supporting small class sizes and school programs. The total cost of all four measures to a Berkeley homeowner would vary dramatically, depending on a property’s size and assessed value, but most taxpayers could expect to owe the district several hundred dollars or more each year. The largest chunk would still go to BSEP, the existing parcel tax last approved in 2016.

Whether you own property in the city or not, read on to prepare yourself before heading to the polls.

Educator recruitment and retention tax (Measure E)

For much of this year, Berkeley Unified and its teachers were at loggerheads over how much of a raise the union would receive in its new contract. Teachers said they couldn’t afford to keep working and living in the expensive Bay Area on their BUSD salaries. Berkeley teacher compensation falls significantly below the regional average, and BUSD started this school year with far more job vacancies than it’s used to.

District leaders said they empathized but didn’t have the funds for a big salary bump, blaming the state for chronically underfunding public education and creating a “crisis” in the district.

Their solution: a new parcel tax raising $10 million a year for all staff salaries.

This 12-year tax would cost property owners 12.4 cents per square foot. That’s $186 a year for the owner of a 1,500 square foot house. The rate would change based on cost-of-living adjustments. Some groups — very low-income seniors, people on SSI or SSDI – would be exempt.

Most of the revenue would go to compensating teachers and classified staff (positions like bus drivers and administrative assistants). A small chunk, 5%, would be used to recruit hard-to-hire teachers — that’s special education, bilingual education, science and math. As with all the measures, some funds are set aside for audits and oversight.

If passed, a renewed facilities bond would fund projects like the seismic retrofit of Berkeley High’s Little Theater. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Going to the voters for teacher pay is new for Berkeley, but not for several other districts in the region. Some of those have struggled with even bigger staff shortages than Berkeley has. Another longtime BUSD parcel tax continues to help attract teachers here, promising small class sizes and funding for libraries and the arts.

If the new tax passes, teachers and staff will get a 12% raise over two years. Both sides have just approved the agreement, several months after the last contract expired. Part of that new two-year raise — 5% from the district’s general fund — is not dependent on the tax.

If voters nix the measure, it’s back to the bargaining table for BUSD and BFT.

Facilities safety and maintenance tax (Measure H)

Grounds staff salaries, maintenance trucks and roofing contracts: it’s all funded by the same parcel tax.

The 10-year maintenance tax is expected to rake in $7.3 million per year. That’s about 9 cents per square foot, or $135 each year for a 1,500-square-foot property.

The majority of the revenue (64.5%) would go toward compensating maintenance and grounds staff, and the rest would be divided among supplies, contracts and other costs.

Savvy voters might notice that the last maintenance tax, Measure H — passed in 2010 but first levied in 2013 — is still very much in effect. What the district is proposing is an early “sunset” of Measure H, with the new higher tax usurping it. The current maintenance tax rate is 7 cents per square foot. Staffers said they proposed this approach because costs, including retirement contributions, have risen.

Facilities bond (Measure G)

From seismic retrofits to solar paneling, Berkeley Unified is gearing up to spend something like $422 million on its facilities in the next decade.

But between state funds and developer fees, the district still falls short, well, a few hundred million dollars. With the 10-year term of its previous general obligation bond ending, BUSD will ask voters to approve a $380 million facilities bond in March. That would work out to $45.21 per $100,000 of assessed value of a property.

Some Berkeley schools are both polling places and the subjects of multiple upcoming ballot measures. Photo: Pete Rosos

The district has engaged in an extensive facilities master planning process in anticipation of this bond measure, drawing up a long list of projects the money could go toward. There’s the full seismic retrofit of Berkeley High’s Little Theater. There’s the replacement of the high school’s tennis-courts-turned-parking-lot with a multi-level tennis-courts-and-parking-lot. There’s the construction of a new center for career technical education, a program in which the state and district have already invested heavily. And there are numerous other improvement and construction projects, addressing classroom space, libraries, labs and more.

Despite the detailed planning, the district’s plans and needs could change over the next 10 years. Revenue from the previous facilities bond, Measure I in 2010, was reallocated a couple years ago, and projects it funded regularly ended up costing more than the district expected. This school year also began with major, unanticipated facilities news; the district’s ultimate decision about Oxford Elementary’s future could also come with a hefty cost.

The BUSD Facilities Department’s fairly new director, John Calise, has introduced a new bidding model he says will help prevent projects from exceeding their projected costs.

Calise also warned the School Board that a statewide school construction bond, headed for the March ballot as well, could render BUSD ineligible for that funding. The $9 billion bond will be targeted at low-income schools and those with immediate safety needs.

As EdSource notes, that state ballot measure will incredibly be called Prop. 13, the same number assigned to the controversial 1978 proposition that capped property taxes and changed the landscape of education funding in California for decades thereafter.

Correction: This story previously said custodial salaries and equipment are funded by the maintenance tax. Those positions are covered by the General Fund.

Ed. note: This story was updated with the letters assigned to each measure, once they were issued.

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,...