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County school budget battle is finally over

By Ben Lumpkin Daily Planet staff
Monday September 03, 2001

After a months-long battle about budgeting priorities that seemed mired in stalemate, Alameda County Superintendent of Schools Sheila Jordan and the county Board of Education finally passed a budget Tuesday. 

“This agreement means that we can now turn all of our attention back to providing our services to the students, teachers and parents of Alameda County,” Jordan said in a statement. 

“It also suggests that we can work together, despite strong differences about our priorities.” 

Back in May, the prospect of Jordan being able to work with the board seemed so slim that state Superintendent of Education Delaine Eastin felt compelled to write a strongly worded letter, reminding the county office that its funding could be cut off if a budget was not submitted in a timely manner. 

“The consequences of not adopting and filing your budget as the law specifies are too great to disregard,” Eastin wrote at the time. 

Despite the warning, however, a majority of the board members were so disappointed with Jordan’s proposed budget, and with her alleged refusal respond to their concerns with thorough explanations, that they planned to pass their own alternative budget.  

At one point, they even threatened to cut Jordan’s salary by as much as 20 percent as a measure of their dissatisfaction. The idea was later abandoned. 

Jordan countered that the board’s complaints were politically motivated, and that, in fact, she was doing more than any county superintendent had done in years to provide accurate and detailed budget information to the board. 

The county office’s $30 million budget pays the salaries of county administrative staff who support the 18 school districts in Alameda County by providing expert budget support, data processing and training for teachers and administrators, among other things. County officials visited Berkeley Monday, providing a detailed explanation of what Berkeley school district administrators must do if they want the state to approve their budget.  

The county office is also charged with operating some small, specialized schools that serve about 600 of the most “at risk” students in the county, ranging from high school dropouts to youth incarcerated in juvenile hall. 

One of the primary issues of contention between Jordan and the board, until this week, was Jordan’s desire to provide a 10 percent raise for county office staff — something the board didn’t think was financially feasible.  

Jordan argued that her top staffers were already underpaid, compared to other county offices, and would probably leave the Alameda office for greener pastures if a raise was not forthcoming. But board members said Jordan had failed to convince them that there was money in the budget to provide the raises without detracting from the programs and county-operated schools. 

Another issue of contention came when Jordan tried to put an end to the practice in which the county office directed hundreds of thousands of dollars from its general fund to cover a continuing budget shortfall for county-operated schools. Jordan argued that the money should be directed back towards support services the county office provides to school districts – budget support, teacher training, etc. – while board members felt strongly that it should continue to be spent on school programs. 

“County schools serve kids who come from probation, foster homes and child protective services,” said Jerome Wiggins, Alameda County Board of Education vice president. Wiggins represents an area that includes Berkeley. “They bring a lot of baggage to the table, and the services [the county provides] are expensive. We felt that the superintendent’s budget was making us take a step back in those services.” 

In the end, with the mediation of individuals from the California County Superintendents Association and the Association of School Boards, the two sides reached a compromise in the budget approved Tuesday. They directed $200,000 of general fund money to school program support instead of the $850,000 originally sought by the board majority. Another $200,000 was designated for salary increases sought by Jordan. 

In interviews Friday, however, both Jordan and Wiggins agreed that the differences in budget priorities have not been completely resolved. Jordan said she would continue to push for the county office to play a greater role in supporting the county’s 18 school districts. 

“I want services that are meaningful,” Jordan said. “I’m attempting to fulfill my campaign promises and make [this office] visible and relevant.” 

Wiggins said he’s been on the board nearly 20 years. In all that time, he said, the county office has not provided much in the way of direct services to Alameda County school districts aside from the budget oversight mandated by law. 

“A lot of the services that she’s talking about providing to school districts many of these school districts already do themselves,” Wiggins said. 

Instead of trying to expand the office’s role as a service provider for other districts, Wiggins wants to see more resources directed to the schools operated directly by the county.  

The budget approved Tuesday did add 10 staff positions to bolster the county office’s student programs.