Painting of two children at a spewing faucet. One boy is wearing a face mask.
Muralist Eduardo Pineda repaired a the mural at King Park during the pandemic — and added a timely element. Photo: Eduardo Pineda

Financial future dire for school districts

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s May budget revision brought ominous news for school districts like Berkeley Unified, signaling the need for excruciating budget cuts unless uncertain federal funding comes through.

When analysts earlier this month warned there could be a -2% to -10% cost-of-living adjustment in the May Revise, some thought the prediction was overly dramatic. But something like the worst-case scenario came true, amounting to a loss of around $8.5 million in state funding for BUSD in one year, said district staff. By contract, the district has struggled to cut about $5 million from its budget over the course of three years.

The May numbers are in sharp contrast with what the governor floated in January, before the pandemic, when he planned to boost the money school districts would get from the state.

“I’m not bearing good news,” said Pauline Follansbee, assistant superintendent of business services, as she walked School Board members through a series of negative numbers Wednesday evening.

The only opportunity for relief could come from the HEROES Act, the $3 trillion stimulus bill currently held up in the U.S. Senate, said Follansbee. If California doesn’t get those federal funds for schools, it’ll be “trigger on” for the deep cuts, and if the relief comes through, “trigger off.”

“That’s going to be a term that’s thrown around a lot. There are so many uncertainties at this time,” Follansbee said. “It’s more than likely we’re not going to get that additional funding.”

Earlier this month, Superintendent Brent Stephens said BUSD would need to brace for up to $6 million in budget cuts in the fall, a figure that was unthinkable for many educations. On Wednesday, he presented a hypothetical model for cutting more than $7 million.

That model includes $2 million in previously identified reductions, $2 million in expected savings from coronavirus school closures (like lower electricity costs), but also a more controversial $1 million in staff furloughs. The district has $1 million in its “rainy day fund” for crises like this too.

The sobering financial news comes just as districts are trying to reshape their educational systems in time for any number of new realities in the fall. The fiscal unknowns only compound the uncertainty around how many children can come to class at once, how to clean facilities, and how to ensure staff safety and capacity.

“That was a lot,” said Board President Judy Appel, absorbing the somber presentation.

Big schools get new leaders at vulnerable time

Just as Berkeley schools are grasping for any sense of stability, the principals of some of the district’s most prominent schools are leaving their posts.

Berkeley High’s Erin Schweng announced in April that she would be leaving the district — after 22 years — in June, but didn’t share much about why or what she plans to do next. Vice Principal Juan Raygoza will fill the position on an interim basis next year.

Longfellow Middle School’s Stacey Wyatt also tendered her resignation in March, at a pivotal moment for that school. Paco Furlan, the former principal of Rosa Parks Elementary, will come back to the district to helm that campus next year. (Longfellow’s vice principal is leaving BUSD too.)

The news this month that Debbie Dean will move up from the Willard Middle School principal post, to serve as BUSD’s director of PK-8 schools, leaves King as the only middle school with a veteran principal. But Willard, like Berkeley High and Longfellow, will get a new principal who is already familiar with and to the Berkeley schools community. Vice Principal Chris Albeck will take up that interim role.

The PK-8 director position opened up because Maggie Riddle, who’s worked for BUSD for 23 years, is retiring. Riddle said she plans to “pursue my passion for social justice” and activism in retirement, but loved all her BUSD jobs.

“I love public education and working hard to ensure that it is for ALL students. Working with Berkeley’s diverse families has been a joy,” she said in an email.

Joining Dean at the district’s central office is Cragmont Elementary School’s Michelle Sinclair — another current principal — taking up the recently vacant director of special projects job.

Before the coronavirus crisis, district leaders had planned to spend this spring working out some big, contentious questions about the future of Berkeley’s middle schools — namely whether to overhaul the assignment policy and integrate the campuses. That process was, of course, put on hold, and now the staffing turnover at the sites introduces a new element.

Mural gets a coronavirus makeover

Colorful long skinny mural curves around, with hill in the background and sand in front
The King Park watershed mural — before its recent makeover. Photo: Eduardo Pineda

The King Park mural has served as a colorful and educational backdrop for the countless kids who’ve played on the climbing structure since 2011.

That structure’s been wrapped in caution tape during the coronavirus crisis, but perceptive little ones who return to the park after the pandemic will notice a timely new addition to the painting.

Muralist Eduardo Pineda took a few days during the shutdown to touch up his decade-old piece, and permanently painted a mask onto one of the children in the mural while doing so.

“Murals can be reminders for later periods,” said Pineda, who lives a couple blocks from King Middle School. “I wanted to acknowledge where we’re at right now. The kid who’s wearing the mask is the kid who’s washing his hands, so I felt it was really appropriate.”

The mural illustrates the watershed, depicting water in its many different forms and uses, and how it ends up in sinks and drinking fountains.

“Throughout the whole mural, children animate it,” Pineda said. “There are kids looking in a creek for tadpoles, kids skateboarding through the rain, kids on snow discs, and kids fishing out those deadly plastic six-packs.”

Jeanine Strickland, a landscape architect who lives nearby, first dreamed up the idea for the mural, and the Friends of King Park received an Alameda County stewardship grant, administered by The Watershed Project, to carry out the idea, she said.

Before the recent repairs, there was visible wear-and-tear, both from curious children touching the mural, Pineda said, and, ironically, rain damage.

“It shows we’re not as strong as water,” he said.

Ed. note: This story was updated to clarify the funding source for the King Park mural.

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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,...