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School board closes City of Franklin

By David Scharfenberg, Daily Planet staff
Friday March 22, 2002

District budget deficit revised to $5.4 million 


As expected, the Board of Education officially voted to close City of Franklin Microsociety Magnet School next year at its Wednesday night meeting. 

The board also reviewed new budget figures suggesting that next year’s deficit, presumed for weeks to be more than $6 million, may be closer to $5.4 million. 

Each board member expressed regret over the Franklin decision, which will save the financially-strapped district an estimated $326,000. 

“It’s a painful reality to face,” said board President Shirley Issel. “I can’t help but feel a sense of failure.” 

Still, board members said the decision was unavoidable, arguing that low enrollment at the school makes it too expensive to operate. 

Superintendent Michele Lawrence, who recommended the closure, also noted that six of the school’s 12 teachers have received notice that they may be laid off next year.  

Some of those notices may be rescinded by the end of the year as the budget picture clears up. But if the school stayed open next year, Lawrence argued, any layoffs would disrupt a faculty with specialized training in the school’s microsociety model, which mimics a small city. 

Lawrence added that long-planned construction on the building next year will be cheaper if it is completed in one phase, with no students in the building. Keeping the school open next year would require a more expensive two-phase construction project, and a mid-year shift of students from one side of the building to the other. 

Lew Jones, manager of facilities planning for the district, said completing construction in one phase will save the district $400,000 to $500,000 on the roughly $5 million project. 

The future use of the building is yet to be determined, although office space or a new elementary school have been suggested as possibilities. Lawrence plans to provide the board with a recommendation in the spring. 

The board made its decision after a series of Franklin parents made last-minute pleas for the school, and urged the district to conduct itself differently in the event of any future school closures. No such closures are expected this year. 

Many parents said they first learned of the Franklin closure plan through press accounts in the Daily Planet. Wednesday night, parent Michiko Morillo urged district leaders to talk directly to community members about any proposed closure in the future. 

“Come talk to them directly,” Morillo said. “It does cause a great deal of hard feelings.” 

Franklin principal Barbara Penny-James made her first public comments on the closure, noting that her work at Franklin was one of the most “inspiring experiences” of her career, and expressing concern that the microsociety model may disappear from Berkeley’s educational landscape. 

Board member Terry Doran said the district should look into retaining elements of the microsociety curriculum at other schools. Under the microsociety program, students train as entrepreneurs and political leaders in their own model city. 


Smaller deficit? 

Before approving the Franklin closure, board members reviewed the latest budget figures provided by the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, or FCMAT, a state agency that has been providing the district with financial advice since October. 

According to FCMAT, the district budgeted for nearly $1 million in state aid this year to help defray energy costs, but never allocated that money for a project, salaries or any other expenditure. As a result, the current estimate on next year’s budget shortfall has been revised down, from over $6 million to $5.4 million. 

“We’re optimistic, but guarded,” said Lawrence, discussing the latest figures. The superintendent said that liabilities for lawsuits and other expenses have not yet been built into the budget, and could raise the $5.4 million estimate at some point. 


New interdistrict permit policy reviewed 

At the end of the night, the board reviewed draft language for a new interdistrict permit policy, which governs the admittance of non-residents to Berkeley schools. 

The new policy emphasizes that non-residents will only be allowed to attend Berkeley schools if there is adequate space, and if they maintain good attendance, discipline and academic performance. 

Lawrence said that permits will be reviewed as students move from elementary school to middle school, and from middle school to high school. But the superintendent emphasized that space concerns will not prevent the current crop of eighth graders on interdistrict permits from attending Berkeley High School next year. 

Doran had previously warned that current, interdistrict eighth graders are expecting to attend BHS next year, and that it would be unfair to retract their permits so late in the year.