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High school axes African-American studies program

David Scharfenberg
Tuesday September 24, 2002

Teachers and community leaders are fuming about a cost-cutting move to fold Berkeley High School’s historic African-American studies department into one or several other departments. 

“I think it’s the manifestation of white supremacy at its zenith,” said Robert McKnight, a teacher and former chair of the department. “We are not going to just completely acquiesce.” 

But Associate Superintendent of Educational Services Christine Lim said the district is not picking on African-American studies. She said the program is just one of several small departments the cash-strapped district, $3.9 million in debt, is consolidating to save money. 

The change, scheduled in the coming weeks, will not limit the number of black studies courses offered, but will deprive the department of a chairperson and meeting time. 

The move will bring an end to the first – and Berkeley educators say only – African-American studies department at a public high school in the nation. The department has been in place since 1968. 

The school district won approval for the change in August, during contract negotiations with the Berkeley Federation of Teachers over pay for department heads.  

During talks, the district called for the consolidation of any departments with fewer than 15 classes per year, erasing the need for several chairpersons and saving thousands of dollars. 

The union agreed to the move, in part as a trade-off to win “above average” compensation for the remaining department heads, according to BFT President Barry Fike.  

Department chairs, under the agreement, will receive stipends of $5,000, $3,750 or $2,250 depending on the size of their programs. 

The two sides signed the pact on Aug. 20, folding the African-American studies and English language learners programs into other, unspecified departments, and combining the visual and performing arts departments. 

Associate Superintendent of Educational Services Christine Lim said the district has not yet decided how to redistribute the effected teachers. The African-American studies program could be transferred wholesale into the social studies department or an African-American dance class could go to the physical education department while a literature class goes to English, she said. 

McKnight said he was deeply disappointed that neither the district nor the union consulted him on consolidation before signing the agreement. 

“That’s a tremendous slight and insult to the department,” he said. 

Lim said it is the union’s job, during negotiations, to keep its membership informed. 

“It’s a negotiated item, so [they] have representatives at the table,” she said. “Where the communications broke down would have been [with the union].” 

Fike acknowledged that he did not consult with the department heads during negotiations over the issue of consolidation. But he said consultation was unnecessary – BFT knew that members wanted to retain all the existing departments and the union, in turn, pushed to keep them in place. The district, he said, simply would not budge on the issue. 

“When you go into negotiations, you don’t always get what you want,” Fike said. 

Fike, who has also received complaints from members of the English language learners and arts departments, said he is willing to take the issue of consolidation back to the bargaining table. 

But Lim said the district is unlikely to sign a new agreement. 

“I seriously doubt we would look again at something that has been negotiated,” she said. 

Several members of the community expressed outrage over the consolidation and the district’s failure to consult with the African-American studies department. 

“It seems that, for the past year or so, the trend has been to make decisions and let people know after the fact,” said Michael Miller, a member of Parents of Children of African Descent (PCAD), a group active on school issues. 

“Once the students find out, there’s going to be a large uproar,” said Sean Dugar, a recent graduate of Berkeley High who is running for the Board of Education. “I’ll make sure of that.” 

School board members Shirley Issel and Terry Doran, when contacted by the Daily Planet, said they had not heard about the shift and did not have enough information to comment at length. But Doran voiced general support for the African-American studies department. 

“I have always supported the African-American studies department as a distinct department and I still believe that that’s important for the school,” he said. 

Superintendent Michele Lawrence was out sick Monday and was unavailable for comment.