I am writing as a citizen of Berkeley, who also happens to be a member of the BUSD School Board’s Budget and Finance Advisory Committee. I am also the father of three BUSD graduates and one current BUSD student. I join the community in sharing the deep concern with the proposed budget cuts.
There is no easy place to cut: class size, music, teacher staff compensation, athletics, under achievers, students with special needs - where is the easy target for the substantial cuts that must come? There is none, and if we think for a moment, we all know it.
But the need for substantial cuts is clear. There simply is not enough money to continue operations at the current level. But why, many ask, is this suddenly an issue? The answer is simple: the administering of the BUSD has been deplorable. The BUSD is not unique in this respect. One only has to look to neighboring Emeryville to find a district which is now bankrupt and under the control of the state. Berkeley is not far from this fate. The process of budget cutting now can either be done by the community, or it will be done by the state. We, the citizens, get to choose. If we act responsibly, Berkeley will remain in control; if not, the state will make the hard decisions.
Beyond the hard budget decisions, the BUSD must also address the lack of adequate management resources which has given rise to the current crisis, or more to the point, learn from the mistakes of the past. It would be easy to point fingers and lay blame – there are plenty of potentially culpable players. I have been impressed with how little talk of this nature I have heard. However, if we are to move forward, I believe that it would be helpful if we, the citizens of Berkeley, consider the role that we have played in this developing fiasco.
The fiscal problems which Michelle Lawrence, the new superintendent, has inherited and is now confronting are ultimately the responsibility of the voters of the City of Berkeley. We, the voters, have chosen and interact vociferously with our government. While school board members may express concern over administrative matters, the dialogue with the citizenry is almost exclusively focused on programs. The school board and school administration regularly encounter highly aroused and outspoken groups who are adamant in the promotion of their particular wishes. The discussion during elections and board meetings focus almost entirely on programs and compensation for teachers. The citizenry are very much in control, if informally, of the agenda. To the best of my knowledge, there has never been an outspoken group on the subject of school administration who has had any real impact.
During the annual budgetary process, BUSD administration has always served as an easy target. Thus we now have an outmoded computer system, poorly trained and inadequate staff, and a revolving door for management. How can it be a surprise that no one understood school finances? that there is no management information? that there are people collecting paychecks who have long ago left the employ of the district?
What is surprising is that we have a highly competent, dedicated new superintendent, who in turn has hired a seasoned financial administrator. They are working with the county and state, and addressing the problems head-on. This is a good development. What concerns me is that our community will revert to form when each of our favorite programs is cut as they inevitably will be, that the howl of protests will bring the process to a stand-still, and without the support our new administrators deserve, that we will drive them out of town. That would be a DISASTER. And part of our support must be investing in administration while cutting programs. An unpleasant concept, but essential if we are to move forward as we must.
Stoicism and a sense of community will get us through this. I also believe that when the voters of this fine city see that the school district can be managed responsibly that they will provide the resources that the school district requires in order to offer the education our children deserve.