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School district hopes to dodge $1.1 million fine

By Ben Lumpkin Daily Planet Staff
Saturday March 10, 2001

Faced with an estimated $5 million budget shortfall next year, Berkeley School Board representatives have intensified a 14-month campaign to escape a $1.16 million state penalty for missing a bureaucratic deadline. 

“The penalty far outweighs the crime,” said Board President Terry Doran Thursday after a meeting in Sacramento where he and Interim Superintendent Stephen Goldstone asked the State Board of Education to consider reducing or eliminating the penalty. 

The battle dates back to December 1999, when the Berkeley school district submitted paperwork to the State Board of Education 45 days later than state law allowed.  

State law in 1999 required districts to account for staff professional development days during the school year in order to receive state education funding for those days. Berkeley was the only district out of more than 600 that failed to account for these days in writing by the Oct. 31 deadline. 

“We made a mistake,” Doran said.  

Doran and others are mystified by the severe punishment for what they call a simple administrative error. 

“Does the state benefit in any way from dinging us for $1.1 million because we missed the deadline by a month and a half?” Doran said. 

Doran said he would understand if the Berkeley school district had substituted professional development time for student instructional time in a way that was not permissible under the law. But Berkeley did nothing different from hundreds of other school districts except fail to file papers on time, Doran said. 

California lawmakers demonstrated their sympathy to the Berkeley argument when they voted overwhelmingly to scrap the penalty last year, but Gov. Gray Davis vetoed the legislation in September, putting the Berkeley school district back at square one. 

The school board turned to the State Board of Education for help in November 2000, but the state board declared it had no legal authority to exempt Berkeley from the penalty. In February, the state board agreed to give Berkeley four years to pay the penalty in $290,000 installments, with the state in effect deducting that amount from its funding for Berkeley schools each year. 

The first deduction has already taken place but is not counted in the district’s $5 million budget deficit for next year because the district is still hoping to have the penalty erased by this summer. 

In a meeting with State Assemblymember Dion Aroner Friday, Doran and Goldstone discussed the possibility of new legislation that would free BUSD from paying the penalty. 

“We want to word the legislation in a different way to better explain our position,” Doran said. 

When Davis vetoed last year’s bill providing relief to Berkeley he argued that “releasing school districts from penalties for noncompliance with these laws...sets an undesirable precedent.” To preempt this argument in the future, any new bill would be worded in a way that deals more specifically with Berkeley, Doran said. 

Berkeley school representatives have also appealed to the State Board of Education one more time to reduce the penalty in some way. Greg Geeting, interim executive director for the state board of education, said Friday that a panel of legal experts for the state legislature is reviewing the matter of the board’s legal authority to intervene in the matter.  

“Our legal council might change their view if the Legislative Counsel’s opinion were different than their own,” Geeting said. 

If efforts to reduce the penalty fail, the Berkeley board may ask for more time to pay up. 

“Given the fact that the penalty is spread out over four years instead of eight or 12 it’s very onerous,” said Shirley Issel, vice president of the Berkeley Board of Education.