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School Board faces possible budget cuts

By Ben Lumpkin Daily Planet Staff
Wednesday March 07, 2001

Berkeley Unified School District staff presented some preliminary suggestions for cutting a projected $5 million shortfall in next year’s budget to the school board Monday night. 

The board welcomed the suggestions overall but expressed some concern about a scenario that called for increasing class sizes at higher grade levels in order to make up some of the budget deficit. 

“There is a real commitment in this community to having lower class sizes,” Board Director John Selawsky said after the meeting. Selawsky said it would take a great deal more discussion before the board would approve a plan that involved reversing long established trend of reducing class sizes in Berkeley. 

Board director Ted Schultz agreed. 

“All (the staffs’ suggestions) are pretty benign except the class-size reduction item,” Schultz said. He said the latter proposal “bares some close scrutiny” because of the potential outcry if the board moved to increase class size. 

BUSD parent Ann Aoyagi, who helped draft the 1994 Berkeley Public Schools Educational Excellence Project tax measure, aimed primarily at reducing class sizes, said larger classes would meet heavy criticism in Berkeley. 

“In surveys for the BSEP measure class size was a very high community priority,” Aoyagi said. “If class sizes shoot up there will be a lot of upset parents and a lot of upset teachers too.” 

When passed, the BSEP measure called for reducing student/teacher ratios to 25-to-1 for kindergarten through sixth grade and 27-to-1 for grades seven through 12, Aoyagi said. Due to budget pressures since 1994, the goals have been relaxed to a 26 -1 ratio and 28 -1 ratio respectively. 

Still, in recent years the BSEP Class Size Reduction Fund has been insufficient to meet even these relaxed goals due to rising teacher salaries and student enrollments.  

In kindergarten through fifth grade, no less than 32 of 201 teachers would be funded by BSEP next year, according to the school district’s First Estimate FY 2002 Budget released last month. Of the $6.2 million projected to meet these goals in next year’s budget, $880,000 would have to come from the BUSD general fund, contributing to the $5 million budget shortfall. 

Under a possible budget saving scenario presented to the board Monday, the class size reduction effort would simply have to do without this $880,000 next year. The move would mean many teachers lost through attrition at the end of the current academic year would not be replaced over the summer, according to board Director Joaquin Rivera. 

Another issue that generated some controversy Monday night was a staff suggestion that the $1.3 million of general fund money set aside for maintenance in the 2002 budget could be dropped since a tax measure passed last November will bring in $4 million annually specifically earmarked for maintenance. 

Stephanie Allan, currently on leave from her position as chair of district’s Facilities Maintenance & Security Advisory Committee, expressed concern that such a cut would jeopardize long-deferred improvements in BUSD custodial and food services. 

But BUSD Interim Superintendent Stephen Goldstone said the district needs time to set maintenance priorities and build up its maintenance staff, implying that the $4 million provided under the tax measure could be more than adequate for next year’s budget. 

“Without adequate systems in place and real accountability then just adding money for maintenance won’t achieve the results that we all want to achieve,” Goldstone told the board. 

BUSD General Services Manager Judson Owens said the district has 23 full-time maintenance staff today and probably needs twice that many employees to maintain district buildings. The maintenance tax measure should pay for these new employees, Owens said, but hiring them will take time. 

Board members said they were impressed by the other measures proposed Monday to either increase revenues or reduce expenses, calling them practical and relatively painless. 

The measures for savings included cutting district energy use by 10 percent, reducing legal expenses and overtime expenses, and saving up to $250,000 by providing more special education services in house. 

Staff suggested increasing revenues by luring more renters to use the Community Theater and by instituting policies to improve school attendance. 

State money in the BUSD general fund is allotted on the basis of student attendance, with the state paying $23.80 per student per day, if and only if the students show up. In 1999-2000 absences cost the district $1.3 million in state money. 

“It would knock off quite a lot of money if we implement all of this stuff,” Selawsky said of the proposed measures. 

But that’s a big ‘if’ Rivera said. 

“Some of these suggestions are sort of soft because they depend on other things that will hopefully materialize,” Rivera said.  

Rivera said he would like to see “concrete plans” for exactly how the district will improve attendance, or make the Community Theater more lucrative.