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Superintendent may give students say in BHS cuts

By David Scharfenberg, Daily Planet staff
Friday March 29, 2002

Superintendent Michele Lawrence may grant Berkeley High School students a role in determining which courses will be eliminated at BHS next year. 

Lawrence suggested the possibility at a meeting with student leaders Wednesday afternoon, in response to a request by BHS senior Sean Dugar, who asked that students sit in with administrators to decide which classes might be stripped next year as part of the move from a seven- to a six-period day. 

“I have never though of doing that, but I don’t see why that couldn’t happen,” said Lawrence. “I’m amenable to something like that.” 

The meeting was the second in a series of gatherings between Lawrence and students focused on the budget. The school district faces a $5.4 million deficit next year, and is moving forward with several cost-cutting measures, including the shift to a six-period day.  

Parents and students have repeatedly raised concerns that the shift could lead to sharp cuts in the arts, African-American studies and other electives. Lawrence has argued that, while there will be some cuts, they will not be drastic. 

A recently completed study by former BHS computer science teacher Peter Bloomsburgh, who has often been tapped as a district volunteer for his statistical and technological expertise, suggests that the proposed schedule for next year will probably not require heavy cuts in electives. 

However, the six-period schedule does include a reduction in the high school’s popular and successful double-period science program, which has some community members concerned. 

The Bloomsburgh study also examined class sizes at the high school. The report concluded that, when traditionally small special education and ninth-grade English classes are removed from the equation, the average class size is 26.7. 

Earlier this year a district analysis suggested that the average class size at BHS, while funded at a ratio of 29 students to one teacher, is actually closer to 32:1, in part because the high school has allowed students to take more than their allotment of courses. 

The Board of Education voted on Feb. 27 to declare a “severe fiscal emergency,” enabling the financially-strapped district to raise class sizes next year, in a cost-saving measure, from the formal 29:1 ratio to a 31:1 ratio. The district said the proposed “increase” would, in fact, be a reduction from the actual 32:1 ratio. 

At the Wednesday meeting with students, Lawrence said Bloomsburgh’s analysis has led the district to look again at its analysis. 

“He found that class sizes are really quite low, and I’m still trying to figure out those numbers,” she said. 

In a separate interview with the Planet, Lawrence said she was “encouraged” by Bloomsburgh’s figures and hopeful that the high school would have lower class sizes next year than previously thought. 

BHS students who attended the Wednesday meeting intend to come up with their own budget-cutting proposals and present them to the superintendent in a subsequent meeting. 

Lawrence, in an initial meeting with students last week, warned that a media presence would alter the discussion. The students voted to exclude a reporters from the Daily Planet and the BHS student newspaper, the Jacket.