After eight years on the Berkeley Unified School District Board, President Judy Appel has decided to withdraw her bid for re-election to focus on healing from a traumatic car crash that happened in January 2019.
Appel had already filed her initial paperwork for the election, but said on Monday that she realized she needs time to plan a new life for herself in the aftermath of the crash, and it’s one of the reasons why she’s leaving the board. She and her wife, Alison Bernstein, were crossing Martin Luther King Jr. Way just after midnight on Jan. 4, 2019, a block from their South Berkeley home, when they were struck by a car, leaving them in critical condition.
Appel was able to return to her seat on the board eight months after the crash, and she said Bernstein is recovering well and working again despite medical complications. But this year has been a huge adjustment — especially during a pandemic.
“It’s just so weird, because everyone’s having a weird time right now,” said Appel, describing the compounding impact of COVID-19 coming after the crash. “We’re just kind of recovering, and getting back on track, and if this pandemic hadn’t happened, I would’ve found a job by now and I would’ve been started in whatever new path I’m gonna be on.”
The school board has also faced an especially intense year, grappling with $8 million in projected budget cuts, a drastic forced shift to online learning, and continued conversations over race and equity in the middle of a new civil rights movement.
Appel said she takes her position very seriously, and is proud to work with talented colleagues to take on all the issues, but that she doesn’t have the resources right now to handle both her recovery and the demanding work.
“When you have this serious of an accident, it really really changes your life,” Appel said. “We were really hurt, we almost died, and I think I’m going to have physical impacts from it for my whole life.”
Appel and Bernstein have both committed their lives to social justice — she said it was how they met, and built a life together — and Appel said she’s been so proud to work on the board to improve equity in Berkeley schools. She and Bernstein have two children who have graduated out of Berkeley schools, and Bernstein grew up in Berkeley. Bernstein does appeals work for people on death row, but she has cut back on some of that work while she heals.
“You’re going along your life on a certain path and we have a great life — and we had an even better life — and then this thing happens, coming home from a movie one night and you get run over by a car and everything just kind of halts, and shifts,” Appel said.
Appel is applying to jobs right now and charting out her next step while she serves out her term for the next six months. She said she would love a position in the education realm, one that would call on her experience in policy development and LGBTQ advocacy and family access issues. Appel was Executive Director of Our Family Coalition for 11 years and, more recently, Senior Program Officer at the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation.
Appel doesn’t think she would run for the school board again, but she did run for State Assembly in 2018, and said she may look toward another elected office in the future.
Appel is one of the most experienced people on the board, and her departure, along with that of board member Beatriz Leyva-Cutler, who’s not running for re-election either, will leave new Supertintendent Brent Stephens with a relatively green team and two open spots for this year’s election. Longfellow community advocate Laura Babbitt and Berkeley PTA leader Ana Vasudeo are currently running for the seats. Appel said her announcement could open up the race for candidates who might not have wanted to run against an incumbent. Ty Alper, who has been a board member for six years, will take on the mantle as Board President.
“It really has been an honor, and honestly a joy, to represent the people of Berkeley on the School Board, helping trying to create this great learning experience for all our kids, or trying to — we’re not there yet,” she said. “I’ve learned a ton, I’ve met a ton of people, and I have confidence that whoever the city of Berkeley elects will maintain that commitment to having a really strong school district.”