The Berkeley Unified School District has managed to avoid the painful cuts to staff positions and student services affecting districts across California.

The school board approved a $218 million budget — its second-largest ever — for the 2023-24 school year at a June 14 meeting. When the district closes the books in the fall, it expects the budget to be the biggest in history.

It includes more funding to support low-income students and improve safety, even as COVID-19 relief money dried up. Superintendent Enikia Ford Morthel said the district was able to continue funding the programs that it began during the pandemic for the next school year.

A pie chart of BUSD's budget showing that the district spent 17% on classified salaries, 41% on certificated salaries, 25% on employee benefits, 14% on services and operating expenses and more.
A breakdown of BUSD’s adopted budget for 2022-23. Credit: BUSD

Over the last two years, the school district used unprecedented state and federal dollars to expand services for high-need students.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the district has grown the Office of Equity and Engagement, hired a vice principal of student wellness at Berkeley High and a counselor dedicated to working with homeless students, and paid for consultants to implement plans for improving literacy and outcomes for Black students, among other programs.

As one-time funds run out, state education funding shrinks by $2.1 billion and BUSD’s staff costs rise, the district has had to contend with a tighter budget. 

See a searchable version of the adopted budget for 2023-24.

“I think before, it was, ‘money, money, money,’” Ford Morthel said at a May school board meeting. “That’s not our situation now.”

However, BUSD has been shielded from the “fiscal cliff” confronting other districts facing staff layoffs and major budget deficits.

The district’s director of fiscal services, Pauline Follansbee, said that’s because BUSD can afford the raises it gave teachers — 12% over two years — while some districts granted more extensive raises. Also, she said, the district funded few ongoing positions with one-time funds, and, where it did, was able continue funding them next year.

During the pandemic, BUSD received $24 million in COVID-19 relief dollars. And while that money is going away, Superintendent Ford Morthel said most of the money was spent on expenses specific to the pandemic. For instance, the district used the money to upgrade their air filters, purchase safety items like plexiglass and support students transitioning back to in-person learning.

Another bright note for the district is enrollment, which continued to decline last year but at a slower rate, and is expected to increase slightly next year, Follansbee said. School districts are funded based on average daily attendance, so increased enrollment likely means more money.

A woman in a fuchsia blazer looks intently at her computer screen during a school board meeting
Pauline Follansbee, BUSD’s director of fiscal services, during the June 7 school board meeting. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Since fall 2019, before the pandemic, BUSD has lost over 700 students, a substantial decline, though one that’s in line with what schools across the state are experiencing as California’s population shrinks. The share of high-needs students has also been declining, which means less funding from the state.

If trends continue, the enrollment decline would eventually catch up to BUSD’s budget books, but Follansbee said the district is cautiously optimistic.

Though the governor’s education budget is $4 billion less than it was two years ago, it’s still substantially higher than it was before the pandemic. Taking declining enrollment into account, per pupil spending is at an all-time high, according to the state. The state plans to fund an 8.2% cost of living adjustment this fall, as of a budget deal reached June 27.

For the next school year, BUSD was able to maintain all of its regular programs and even add new positions.

Next year’s budget includes a more modest number of new hires and programs than in the past two years. After months of advocacy from students, staff and alumni, BUSD will fund RISE, a nonprofit college prep program for low-income students. It will also expand Puente, a program for Latino students, and hire a director of curriculum and instruction.

The district devoted funds for student safety, which will create two new safety officer positions at Berkeley High and pay for the installation of cameras on school buses.

One of the single largest new expenses in the budget is $600,000 to launch the campaign for Berkeley Schools Excellence Program (BSEP), the local tax measure responsible for 17% of the district’s budget. It will be up for a vote again in March.

The district will also spend $6 million to fund the second half of the 12% raise for teachers agreed to in last year’s contract.

Follansbee cautioned that 2024-25 could be a “reality check” for the district if the state’s funding formula for schools does not change. “We’re now in an era of uncertainty and risk,” Follansbee said at a June 7 board 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,...