The Bonar Street headquarters of the Berkeley Unified School District. Credit: Kaia Diringer

Berkeley Unified may have to slash $6.6 million from next year’s budget due to a pandemic-driven decline in enrollment, though cash may be coming from the state that could mitigate the needed cuts.

Berkeley Unified lost about 600 students over the course of the pandemic, a 6% decline in enrollment from fall 2019 to November 2021. Enrollment has dropped an average of 3% in California school districts.

A tentative budget plan for 2022-23 will be submitted Dec. 15, but how much money the school district is expected to cut will depend on California’s education budget, which could bring a windfall of general and one-time COVID-19 funds to Berkeley. California’s education budget could get $11.6 billion in additional funds this year, according to a Nov. 17 report by the legislative analyst’s office, with the governor’s January budget proposal expected to provide more information.

“What we’re doing right now is proceeding with a note of caution,” Stephens said of the preliminary plan.

As of now, the cuts could include reducing the number of teachers on special assignment, lowering operational expenses — including cutting the graduation budget by 5% — and creating in-house services for students with disabilities currently served by outside agencies.

California school districts are “dealing with two realities” around next year’s budget, said Michelle Smith McDonald, spokesperson for the Alameda County Office of Education. “There is an infusion of one-time money. There may even be an increase in the base, but the declining enrollment that districts are experiencing is still causing a significant level of fiscal stress.”

In nearby West Contra Costa County, the school district is expected to lose $30 million due to enrollment declines, amounting to 10% of its budget.

For the past two years, school districts were not responsible for declining enrollment and funds were allocated according to pre-pandemic enrollment levels. That will no longer be the case next year, unless the legislature extends the rule again.

Berkeley, like many school districts, has used one-time state and federal COVID-19 relief money to fund new programs and positions, a move that could force difficult choices later on. Berkeley Unified devoted $600,000 in one-time funds to kick start the African American Success Framework, which will go toward programs like Young Gifted and Black and an African American Parent Advisory Group.

“Many of our districts are in a similar boat, in the sense that they have used their COVID money to ramp up programs and supports for students,” Smith McDonald said. “When the COVID funding runs out, they’re going to figure out how they want to continue to support those programs or even if they are able to.”

Despite the uncertainty around next year’s budget, Berkeley Unified will submit an outline for the cuts in an interim budget report to Alameda County Office of Education. On the (tentative) chopping block:

  • Trimming the number of teachers on special assignment, particularly those working at the administrative level, by 10% would save $850,000.
  • The cooking and gardening program could lose $50,000.
  • The number of teachers could go down to accommodate for declining enrollment, trimming $657,000.

“There’ll be no easy solutions here and I imagine that many beloved programs that directly serve students will be impacted,” Matt Meyer, president of the Berkeley teachers union, said at the Nov. 17 school board meeting.

Initially, the plan identified three new positions, none of which have yet been filled, to remove from the Office of Family Equity and Engagement: a supervisor and two family liaisons, including a Spanish-language one. The three positions would have reduced allocated spending by $327,506. But after community members and school board directors pushed back against the cuts, it looks less likely that the OFEE positions would make it onto the Dec. 15 list of programs to cut.

“Budgets tell stories. And your current list of cuts is telling a story that our Spanish-speaking familias are not a priority,” Gladys Stout, the parent of two elementary schoolers and a leader within Latinos Unidos de Berkeley, said during public comment at a Nov. 17 School Board meeting.

Superintendent Stephens emphasized that the Dec. 15 list is “non-binding, it’s preliminary,” calling the interim budget report to the county a “compliance exercise.” School Board Director Laura Babitt said she did not want to be “alarmist” about the budget cuts or spend “too much time on something that might not actually be real.”

BUSD is also considering restructuring how it provides special education services, offering in-house programs instead of contracting out to external agencies in an effort to save money. The district could, for instance, create its own Special Day program for students with disabilities; the district currently pays for these students to attend special schools outside of the district.

Babitt called the idea to move programs in-house an “innovative” solution, but, especially given the staffing shortages, said BUSD needed a “better plan of action before we decide to reduce our outside services.” “If we don’t have staff in time, this could actually end up costing us more money because these are legal mandates, and then we’re faced with more lawsuits and legal fees,” Babitt said.

The district also hopes that elementary school enrollment will rise as children ages 5 to 11 get the COVID-19 vaccine, which was recommended by the CDC Nov. 2. While elementary school enrollment is down this year, middle and high school enrollment is back above expected numbers.

The school board will vote on a plan for the tentative budget cuts at its Dec. 8 meeting.

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,...