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Berkeley’s public schools are underachievers

John Cecil Berkeley
Saturday April 20, 2002

To the Editor: 

Given the deluge of bad news reported in the Daily Planet and television about the financial problems of the Berkeley Unified School District, which appear to only get worse, the Board of Education owes Berkeley's citizens a comprehensive explanation of the current state of local public education and what, if anything they are actually doing to correct their real problems. Consider the following flood of bad news.  

First it was announced that the BUSD faces a 6 to 7 million dollar deficit. Given that the BSEP tax now exceeds $10 million per year and a $4 million per tax of maintenance was recently passed. BUSD has $14 million per year more than a comparably sized California school district, adding contributions from the excellent Berkeley Educational Foundation, it is difficult to understand how the BUSD has created such a large deficit! TV news coverage informed us that teachers were being overpaid; in fact former and deceased teachers were still being paid! I guess Berkeley's salary schedule has a unique "Dead and Gone" column. It was also reported that bond revenue was being used to pay salaries, some much for the "oversight" promised when ever BUSD money measures appear on the Ballot to reassure voters. Then we have the results of an audit. The news report about the audit doesn't address any of the reported problems; rather it expands the problems by noting "inadequate monitoring of the district's self-insurance, adult education and cafeteria funds" while not specifically stating that this finding usually equates to raiding the identified funds. 

One Board member did notice that the problem areas noted in the audit were repeats from the prior year's audit! By the way, doesn't the Alameda County Board of Education get copies of the BUSD's audit? It was reported that the latest of the almost endless parade of school finance experts is working hard but warns that many of the problems will likely be repeated on the next audit. Then the BUSD commissioned a study by school services of California which further expanded the problems when it reported that state funding of special education fell $4.5 million short of needs of the children. 

Board Member Ted Schultz admitted that this has been going on for years. The report also stated that most California school districts raid their general funds due to inadequate state funding for special education. Given a TV report last week that state funding to support existing class size reduction will be reduced sufficiently so that some districts are considering increasing class size, the BUSD's problems may only get worse. One wonders what was the basis of Governor Davis's primary campaign ads claiming to have dramatically increased Educational Funding. 

The suggestion that the BUSD's problems are due even in part to an antiquated computer system has angered many people. In the last decade computer processing and storage have increased so drastically that new terms were necessary to identify the huge increases. 

These huge increases, with little or minimal cost increases, coupled with the dot-com collapse, have made computer equipment and trained people available to install it available at very modest prices. What appears to be missing is the desire to fix the problem. 

It is further discouraging to read that the Board's focus, perhaps rightly is so negative. The cost reduction of closing the Franklin Elementary School provides Berkeley was a positive opportunity. Why not use this facility we have paid for to provide temporary rooms for teachers, firefighters, and police? Given that the cost of living in Berkeley is frequently cited as a recruitment problem, by providing a bed for a teacher or police officer that does not live in Berkeley to spend a night reduces their commuting requirements and costs and reduces local congestion. I am suggesting beds in areas separated by privacy screens, not permanent partitions, these are adults, and while there are details to be worked out, it appears that Franklin could be used to make Berkeley more attractive to teachers, police, and firefighters.  


John Cecil