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Schools may carry deficit into next year

By David Scharfenberg, Daily Planet staff
Friday May 24, 2002

The Berkeley Unified School District revealed new budget figures and Superintendent Michele Lawrence warned that the district may carry a deficit into next year at the Board of Education meeting Wednesday night. 

In a separate development, Lawrence announced that the district will rush to apply for a nutrition grant that community activists, upset with the quality of school meals, have pushed feverishly. 

At the end of the night, a divided board passed a resolution opposing state legislation that would include curriculum and textbook issues in teacher contract negotiations. 


The deficit 

In March, when the district submitted a “second interim report” on the budget to the Alameda County Office of Education, it projected a $39,000 surplus for the current budget year, a $5.4 million deficit for 2002-2003 and a $13.2 million deficit for 2003-2004. 

Associate Superintendent Jerry Kurr presented new figures Wednesday night indicating that the surplus for the current budget year is closer to $1.1 million, in part because telephone and utilities costs were lower than expected. Kurr said the deficit for next year, including all the cuts the board has approved in recent months, is about $450,000. The projected deficit for 2003-2004 stands at roughly $4.4 million. 

Kurr warned that the figures are changing everyday. 


For instance the district just discovered that food service costs, paid out of a separate “cafeteria fund,” are bleeding into the general fund to the tune of $160,000. 

As a result, Kurr said, the numbers could go up or down before next week when the board is slated to approve the “third interim report” to the county. Final approval for next year’s budget is scheduled for June 26. 

Lawrence said she would prefer watch the numbers play out over the next few months before making final cuts to next year’s budget. 

“While we could probably press this much harder in the next couple of weeks to go after more cuts...I am loathe to do that,” Lawrence said. 

If next week’s figures still reveal a deficit and the district postpones further cuts for several months, the shortfall would carry into next year – casting doubt on county approval of the budget. 

Last year, the county disapproved of Berkeley’s budget and this fall assigned a financial adviser, the Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team, a state agency, to assist the district. 

But Lawrence said the county might still approve the budget this year if the district has a solid recovery plan in place and appears to be making progress on vital infrastructure changes, including conversion to a new data processing system. 

The existing system, officials have acknowledged, has prevented the district from keeping proper track of payroll and health care costs. 


Nutrition grant 

Community activists heavily criticized the quality of school meals Wednesday night and urged the district to apply for a state grant titled Linking Education, Activity and Food, or LEAF. 

“If you look at the food that is being served in the cafeteria now, it is not something I would allow in my house,” said activist Yolanda Huang, holding up sugary cereals and salty burritos served at some sites. “This is unconscionable.” 

Lawrence announced that the district will apply for the grant, directed at middle schools, which includes healthy food and exercise requirements. The program provides $250,000 per school site over the course of two years. Lawrence said if the district gets any money, it is unlikely to win funding for all three of its schools since the state will only provide about 10 grants statewide. 

The superintendent said she would use the grant to plan for better exercise of a nationally-renowned food policy, passed in 1999, that has not been properly implemented. 


State legislation 

A sharply divided school board voted 3-2 to pass a resolution offered by vice-president Joaquin Rivera opposing AB 2160. The bill, sponsored by Assemblywoman Jacki Goldberg, D-Los Angeles, would allow unions to bargain over the processes for selecting textbooks and developing curriculum. Currently, unions can only negotiate hours, wages and conditions of employment. 

“The collective bargaining process is, by nature, adversarial,” said Rivera, arguing that textbook and curriculum issues do not belong in that arena. 

School board President Shirley Issel seconded the argument and said unions would likely use the issues as bargaining chips. 

“I have to respectfully disagree,” said John Selawsky, arguing that negotiations don’t need to involve conflict. He added that the state and textbook makers have too much power over the books that get into the classroom and said the legislation would assure processes that involve teachers and parents. 

Barry Fike, president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, said the district already does a good job of incorporating teachers and warned that support for the resolution would send a mixed message to instructors. 

“We strongly believe teachers should be active participants in all these processes,” Rivera responded. “The issue is not teacher participation. The issue is what is the proper forum for that participation.”