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Board backs away from ‘anti-democratic’ procedure

By David Scharfenberg Daily Planet staff
Friday January 11, 2002

Superintendent Michele Lawrence and members of the Berkeley Board of Education backed away from a controversial change in board procedures Wednesday night, which would have had community organizations speak at the end, not the beginning, of board meetings. 

The board also approved an 18-month plan for the oft-maligned maintenance department, signed off on a change in the contract with the teachers’ union and heard about cost overruns from members of the Citizens Construction Advisory Committee. 

The board intended to change the order of its bi-weekly agenda, but amid protest, decided to not move oral reports from citizen oversight committees to the end of the list, which is what happened Wednesday.  

Several speakers during the public comment portion of the meeting, attacked the move, arguing that, with the change, board members would not hear vital testimony from citizen oversight committees before voting on issues of substance. 

“The opportunity to address the board after (the voting) is no opportunity at all,” said Yolanda Huang, chair of Maintenance Planning and Oversight Committee, which has clashed with the board in recent months. 

“The concepts of democratic participation and the whole community taking responsibility for raising our children are deeply rooted in Berkeley,” added Stephanie Allan, another member of the maintenance committee. “Having such participation means you may hear things you don’t like or wish weren’t made public.” 

“You...have to accept and respect public oversight,” she concluded. “I am saddened to see this effort to muzzle it or make it irrelevant.” 

“I would like to extend a sincere apology,” replied Superintendent Lawrence. “The intention was not to squelch, in any way, the community from coming forward.” 

Lawrence, who took responsibility for initiating the procedural change, said she simply wanted to move up the board’s votes so that important issues were not being discussed late at night. 

“We’ll just go back and have it the way it was,” she said. 

But Joaquin Rivera, vice president of the board, said he is unhappy with the previous structure, suggesting that it provides a platform for activists who may not represent their committees accurately.  

“A lot of times,” said Rivera, “I really get the impression that, when we get a committee report, it’s really just the opinion...of the person at the mic.” 

The vice president called for a more formalized process, ensuring that the entire committee’s views are represented. 


Better maintenance 

Later in the evening, Lew Jones, manager of facilities planning for the school district, presented an 18-month plan for improving the maintenance department. 

The plan listed 12 areas of improvement, ranging from accountability, to morale, to addressing the “backlog of safety and maintenance requests” at the schools. 

However, Jones’ report suggested that “the staff cannot simultaneously implement all the needed changes,” and recommended a focus on four areas in the next 18 months: staff development, increased work production, administrative accountability, and preventative maintenance. 

The plan also laid out a staffing model for the department, including a recommendation that the organization move from 22 full-time positions to 39.4 in the next 18 months. The staff would be paid, largely, out of funds from bond measure BB, passed by Berkeley voters in Nov. 2000, which provides the maintenance operation with roughly $4 million per year for 12 years. 

The original plan, approved by the board with the passage of BB, was to use bond funding to pay for 46.7 full-time positions, and Huang criticized the new plan for short-staffing the department at the Wednesday night meeting. 

Jones said maintenance department tasks and needs have shifted since the original estimate, resulting in the shift from 46.7 to the 39.4 figure. But, he suggested that the situation may change over time. 

“Frankly, we’re going to have to work through this to come up with an exact number,” he said. “It’s possible that we may need to add one or two maintenance engineers.” 

“There has to be some evolution,” Jones added in an interview Thursday morning. 


Contract changes 

The board also approved adjustments to Article 15 of the district’s May 1999 contract with the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, putting more uniform evaluation procedures in place for teachers. Previously, the procedures varied, depending on the experience of the teacher. 

The change also embraces a set of six state-wide standards known as the California Standards of the Teaching Profession, endorsed by the State Board of Education in July, 1997. 

Bruce Wicinas, of the Citizens’ Construction Advisory Committee, concluded the evening by pointing to multi-million dollar cost overruns for projects funded, in part, by bond Measure AA, passed in November 2000 that allocated $116.5 million for district construction. 

Wicinas, Jones and members of the board pointed out that the overruns could be offset by funding from a variety of sources, including the roughly $10 million insurance settlement resulting from a fire that tore through the high school’s B Building in April 2000. Jones said he hopes to receive $4.2 million from the settlement. 

Still, Wicinas told the board to stay on top of the issue. “If such increases accumulate,” he said, “we will be in trouble, in terms of keeping our promises to the voters about the amount of work we will complete.”