A proposal by District Superintendent Michele Lawrence to put her stamp on the Berkeley Unified School District’s maintenance procedures has sparked concerns that last November’s Measure BB funds, earmarked for maintenance, could be diverted to uses not approved by voters.
Measure BB, approved in the last elections, will funnel almost $4 million in city taxes annually to the school district over 12 years. Its wording specifies that the money is for maintenance, a budget category that has often borne the brunt of revenue shortfalls.
“That is the only reason people voted for this,” said Yolanda Huang, chair of the Maintenance Oversight and Planning Committee, which the text of Measure BB designates as its official public watchdog. “Because the history is, whenever there was a shortfall, they cut maintenance to patch another fiscal hole.”
The district’s financial consultant announced this week that state budget constraints and anticipated shortfalls in this year’s problem-plagued budget may indeed necessitate belt-tightening by the end of the year. The maintenance budget, however, is now almost entirely funded by Measure BB funds – $3,849,000, plus $168,000 from a food service concession and the rental of the Hillside School.
Last May, in the wake of Measure BB, the school board approved a maintenance plan that had been two years in the making, with input from two consultant firms that cost the district $70,000.
At Wednesday’s school board meeting, Lawrence, who took office this summer, formally announced that she had put that plan’s implementation on hold to explore making several changes.
“It may well appear that it is hubris on the part of a new superintendent” to alter the maintenance procedures, she said, “but I am concerned about the pieces that I believe the board is holding me accountable for.”
“The superintendent had no input into the plan that the committee put together because she wasn’t here, yet she’s going to be held accountable for the results of the plan,” said board president Terry Doran. “So I think it’s perfectly legitimate for her to review the plan, and where she feels there are ways to improve it, that’s her responsibility to make those suggestions.”
However, current and past leaders of the oversight committee strongly protested to the board against delaying implementation of the current plan, warning that further delays endangered public trust and safety.
“They gave us this money, and if the high school looks the same next June as it does now, we’re going to have a problem,” said Stephanie Allen, former chair of the committee and now its secretary.
Lawrence’s proposal calls for a “more comprehensive long-term strategic plan” that can “serve as a service delivery model for the various aspects of facilities, which are not just limited to maintenance.” It would enlarge the administrative boundaries of the plan to include “construction, community use, rental agreements, and ancillary educational programs.” Plant security, waste disposal, and disaster readiness “need also be considered” in the maintenance plan, the proposal said.
“That isn’t what we promised the voters, and that isn’t what the measure says,” Allen said. “I’m hoping the board is going to exercise its fiduciary responsibility to prevent that from happening.”
The proposal further calls for changing the supervisory model, currently based on a single custodial inspector, because “individuals accountable for tasks must be empowered to supervise employees assigned to their site or department.”
“That red flags it for me immediately, because that means that she’s then going to ding BB to pay for principal salaries,” Huang said.
Superintendent Lawrence did not return calls – made over two days – for comment. Gene Le Fevre, the district’s maintenance director, told the Daily Planet that Lawrence had forbidden him to speak to the press and that she was the sole spokesperson for the district.
Board of Education President Terry Doran, however, expressed confidence in Lawrence’s proposal, which will come back to the board for further discussion next month.
“I think these are legitimate concerns of any oversight committee, that the funds are legally spent,” Doran said. “They’re my concerns as well. I’m not concerned that the superintendent is suggesting that in her plan.”
Aside from the issue of proper use of BB funds, the committee members also said the imposition of a new plan would delay vital maintenance. Huang said the interruption of lengthy hiring processes could set back the district’s maintenance activities several months. At the board meeting, she said that only three additional workers had so far been hired to fulfill Measure BB’s call for a doubling of the maintenance staff to 46.7 full-time positions.
“The way the Berkeley school system works – which (Lawrence) can’t change with the twinkle of a wand – it’s going to be March at best before she can bring anybody on board to start working,” Huang said. She noted that the more maintenance is deferred, the costlier it gets. “We cannot spend another $20,000 to fix dry rot this year,” she said.
Doran, like Lawrence, framed the proposal as a long-term strategy. “The benefit of this further review will outweigh any further delays and in the long run put us in a better place,” he said.
Lawrence’s proposal also calls for streamlining the maintenance department by seeking workers with broader skill areas rather than “trade specialists.” (Allen, the former committee chair, told the board that the district was not able to pay enough to attract such people.)
The superintendent would also change work schedules so that maintenance would no longer be limited to classroom hours and eliminate time-consuming multiple work orders on single projects like installing a new door.