After a year of remote learning, Berkeley Unified School District will approve its budget for the upcoming school year, which the board expects to be fully in person, at Wednesday night’s school board meeting. The district has increased spending on high-need students, but critics say the plan doesn’t go far enough to support them.

The district plans to spend $173.6 million, $8.5 million of which will be dedicated to high need students, up from $3 million the previous year. The district continues to have a structural deficit of $1.6 million. As a result, the overall expected expenses are down from $176 million last school year. 

Wednesday night the board will also pass the Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP), a three-year plan designed to improve student achievement, particularly among vulnerable students. The plan is driven by specific goals, such as reducing the share of Black students at the high school earning a D or F from half down to a quarter. The district will spend $17.3 million next year on the LCAP.

Throughout the past several months, the district has also been determining how it would spend $16 million in one-time state and federal COVID funds, which now devotes money toward an African American Success Framework, mental health services, “restorative restart” grants for each school, and increased teacher pay.  

Now, after the pandemic exacerbated challenges faced by some students, there is added pressure on the district to address learning loss and academic disparities. 

The budget devotes an additional $610,000 to expand the Office of Family Engagement and Equity, hiring a director and two additional engagement specialists for King and Willard middle schools. An additional $220,000 for Bridge, a program that prepares primarily low-income students of color for college, will allow an additional cohort of students to enter next year. 

Other changes include hiring nine new special education positions, expanding the Black Studies Department, adding funding to develop a K-12 ethnic studies curriculum, and new support math classes.

Critics of the budget say the plan still does not do enough to improve outcomes for vulnerable students. 

The number of “unduplicated students,” which include English learners, low-income students, and foster students, has been declining in recent years. From 2014-15 to 2020-21, the district lost 1,272 of these students.

“Much of the draft appears to be a wordsmithed version of the prior LCAP,” the parent group wrote in their comments on the LCAP. With the exception of increased funding for the Office of Family Engagement and Equity, Bridge, and a few other new programs, the plan “shows little promise of advancing the success of prioritized students and families.” 

The group also complained that the draft was less transparent than previous versions. The LCAP draft was shared with the group the day before it was scheduled to meet, giving the parents little time to discuss the plan. “Overall, the plan has less information and less specificity than BUSD’s previous 3-year LCAPs,” they wrote. 

School board members told Berkeleyside that the district could not devote as much time as usual to the LCAP process while it was dealing with school reopening.

At a June 2 meeting, school board members Laura Babitt and Julie Sinai also expressed concern that the budget would not address long-standing academic inequities, offering ‘business as usual’ programming. 

“My stomach is turning, because I’m feeling like I’m not getting the strategy that’s going to have the impact on data that’s remained fairly stagnant, year after year after year,” Sinai said at a June 2 board meeting, referring to long-standing academic disparities. Sinai wanted to see the LCAP move from a laundry list of programs to targeted interventions. 

School board director Babitt wanted to see more direct services to students in the plan. “Our families have been struggling this year and they have said to us repeatedly, we need more direct services to our children. We are not providing that,” she said, drawing a line between funds that go to students and funds that develop curriculum, train staff, or make high-level plans.

“When my child is behind, I’m going to buy my child a tutor. I’m not going to buy my child’s teacher a tutor,” Babitt told Berkeleyside “We’re spending a lot of money trying to train and uplift the teacher, instead of giving that direct service to the students who may need that one-on-one.”

Few revisions were made to the budget or to the LCAP between the June 2 meeting and the final draft. One of those revisions was expanding the Office of Family Engagement and Equity.

Last week, Babitt turned to one-time COVID funds to make sure that programs she deemed were providing direct services to students would get on the docket for the next school year. 

By the meeting’s end, the school board had unanimously committed to putting at least $600,000 in COVID funds toward the African American Success Framework, a plan drafted with input from parents and principals over the course of the past year to improve outcomes for Black students in the district. The plan increases funding for programs like Young Gifted and Black and Umoja and creates an African American Parent Advisory Committee. 

“I don’t think anybody is pleased when you can look at our third and fourth grade reading scores and determine how many prison cells they need to build,” Babitt said. “But yet we’re still there, and that is what the framework is designed to change.” 

The board also unanimously voted to devote an additional $400,000 toward mental health services out of one-time COVID funds.

Funding for mental health services and the African American Success Framework come from one-time COVID funds, which means that it remains to be seen whether they will receive ongoing funds in the future. 

Parent Sarah Bowles said the district needs “a fundamental reset on what’s possible for kids in special education.” Hiring more special education teachers is an important step, but the goals the LCAP lays out are disappointingly low and do not account for the diverse needs of students with disabilities.  

In response to comments by the Parent Advisory Committee, Superintendent Brent Stephens said he believed these changes would address the needs of vulnerable students. “Both the LCAP and the budget will add significantly to the number of actions the district will take in the coming year to address a range of disparities in BUSD. These 21-24 actions deepen the district’s focus on disparities that are racialized, and that relate to second language learning, gender and sexual orientation, and disability,” Stephens wrote. 

While the school district will approve its budget Wednesday’s school board meeting. The budget is subject to revision after the final state budget is approved June 30.

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...