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County to aid school district with budget

By David Scharfenberg
Monday September 23, 2002


The likelihood that the Berkeley Unified School District will not balance it’s projected $3.9 million budget this year, will apparently have little effect on the district’s relationship with the Alameda County Office of Education, despite earlier concerns that it might. 

County Superintendent Sheila Jordan said Friday that, while she would prefer that the district close the gap this year, she will provide Berkeley Unified with some flexibility to pursue a multi-year deficit reduction strategy. 

“Obviously we would like them to eliminate [the deficit this year], but we are working together on it,” said Jordan. 

The county office rejected Berkeley Unified’s 2002-2003 budget early last week, in part because of the deficit problem. 

The office has ultimate sanction over the district’s budgeting. 

On Friday, despite county budget concerns, Superintendent Michele Lawrence said the Berkeley Unified School District will probably not make cuts necessary to erase the deficit this fiscal year. 

County rejection of the budget, coming in in a letter Tuesday, found fault not only with the $3.9 million deficit, but with a vague financial recovery plan. The district has until Dec. 15 to develop a more detailed blueprint for recovery. 

If the district fails to meet county standards, it will go back to the drawing board but will face no additional penalties, Jordan said. The county will take over the district if the budget is ultimately deemed unworkable, Jordan said. 

Lawrence said the district will comply with the Dec. 15 deadline for a revised budget and new, likely multi-year, recovery plan. But Berkeley’s complex budget problems may prevent the district from providing the sort of specificity in its recovery plan that the county is seeking. 

“It may not be as detailed as, perhaps, they would like,” she said. 

Jordan said there will likely be some “give and take” over the level of detail, but said the scheme will have to be a “viable” one. 

“We need to be assured that there really is a plan in place,” she said. 

The recovery plan will serve as the basis for future cuts. Lawrence said it is too early to speculate about what types of reductions will be on the list. But the board, which slashed millions in February through layoffs and class size increases among other measures, will face a particularly painful round of cuts this time, she said. 

“We’ve pealed away the onion layers and we’re at the heart of things,” Lawrence said. “The next cuts are going to be hard.” 

School board member John Selawsky said more layoffs are a possibility. 

“I would really hate to say it’s a probability, but I think, realistically, we’re going to have to look at it,” he said. “Personnel cuts are going to be on the table.” 

Mid-year layoffs are unlikely, and illegal in the case of certified teachers and administrators, but staff reductions could go into effect for the 2003-2004 school year. 

Community members have argued that the district did not include the public enough when it made the cuts last year.  

Lawrence has long contended that the district had to move quickly then because it did not learn the enormity of the budget crisis until January. This year, she said, Berkeley Unified will seek more public input. Lawrence said she has not yet determined how she will seek input. 

In her letter to the district Tuesday, Jordan laid out not only short-term, but long-term budget concerns for Berkeley Unified. A roughly 300-student drop in district enrollment, she noted, will lead to a dip in state funding next year. 

Lawrence said she is not overly concerned about the enrollment decline because, while fewer students means less revenue, it also means fewer costs. Berkeley Unified, for instance, may be able to cut down on the rent it pays for portable classrooms at overcrowded schools if it has fewer students to serve, she noted. 

The county office also raised concerns about the district’s ability to grant its employees salary increases in the face of a fiscal crisis. Board member Ted Schultz said those concerns are legitimate ones. 

“I’m hopeful that we can give reasonable salary increases, but I think Sheila Jordan is perfectly right – if we are in a real bind financially, that’s going to be difficult to do,” said Schultz. 

Stephanie Allan, business agent for Local 39, which represents classified employees in Berkeley Unified, said the district’s four unions are looking warily to the spring, when their contracts expire and the issue of wages resurfaces. 

“I can assure you the district has the money,” said Allan. “The question is, where do they spend it?”