Page One

School tax helps soften budget blow

By Ben Lumpkin Daily Planet staff
Monday May 14, 2001

Faced with escalating operating costs — and little hope that the now cash-starved state government would come up with extra education dollars at the final hour — the Berkeley Unified School District board cut millions of dollars from its budget earlier this month. 

Berkeley High School, by now accustomed to watching some of it fundings evaporate toward the end of budget planning season, lost the equivalent of 3.6 teachers in this latest round of cuts. 

But a local parcel tax measure originally passed in 1987 to provide extra support to Berkeley schools is, as in years past, helping to soften the blow at the high school.  

In fact, at the very moment the school board was preparing to finalize its budget cuts (which, in fact, won’t be completely finalized until this Wednesday), the high school’s Berkeley Public Schools Educational Excellence Project (BSEP) Site Committee was figuring out how to distribute more than $400,000 to fund high school programs next year. 

These so-called “enrichment” funds come directly from Berkeley taxpayers, under the BSEP tax measure. Most of the millions raised each year under this measure go to teacher salaries, to help keep class sizes small. But a certain percentage is set aside for enrichment purposes, helping to pay for those extra activities and programs that would not otherwise make their way onto a public school budget. 

At Berkeley High, a committee of five parents, five staff (including the principal) and five students reviews proposals for how the money should be spent each year then votes on the final allocations. The BSEP Site Committee submits the plan to the Berkeley School Board for approval in June. 

The committee begins its work each year by completing a needs assessment study of the high school, said committee Chair Frances Cohen, a Berkeley High parent. It then studies programs already operating on campus and conducts interviews with students and staff to evaluate how they are meeting the needs of the school. 

This year the committee has tentatively awarded more than one third of the high schools’ $400,000 in enrichment funds to programs that support student learning in particular areas, Cohen said. 

After determining that BHS students need more one-on-one help in improving their writing skills, the committee chose to fund a program that brings writing tutors onto the campus to work with the students. 

To help Berkeley High students who are being asked to master high school level English curriculums when they barely know how to read, the BSEP committee will fund a reading teacher next year. 

“It’s something that hasn’t been done at the high school, and yet, it’s a need that gets mentioned over and over again,” Cohen said. 

In a similar vein, the BSEP committee chose to provide money for Check and Connect, a program aimed at tackling the schools notorious problems with truancy. The money would pay for a staff person to carefully track student absences, and for another person to dedicate a number of hours each day to the task of contacting parents of absent students. 

“It’s a constant complaint,” Cohen said. “You have students not going to class, and parents don’t know, and before you know it it’s the end of the semester and it’s a big problem.” 

As the school board continues to chip away at parts of its own budget, the BSEP committee sometimes takes up the slack. For example, the arguably indispensable position of the high school’s college advisor was cut from the regular school district budget some time ago. Ever since, the BSEP committee has stepped up to pay that person’s salary. 

Next year, the BSEP Committee plans to fund the salary of computer technician to keep the schools computers up and running. The school district, again, couldn’t come up with the cash. 

“The BSEP committee is supposed to fund enrichment activities, rather than things that are sort of basic,” Cohen said. “Our hope is that, in the future, the district would pick up some of this.” 

None of this is too say that the BSEP Committee has given up on funding more traditional enrichment activities, however. Next year the committee plans to pay for tutors in math and English as a second language; chemistry lab assistants; section instructors for the jazz lab band; a ballet teacher; peer health educators; visits to campus by musicians, poets and other artists; and student outings to inspirational performances in drama and music.