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Teachers condemn cuts

By David Scharfenberg Daily Planet Staff
Wednesday September 25, 2002

Teachers and activists expressed concern Tuesday about cost-cutting moves that combine Berkeley High School’s visual and performing arts departments and fold the English Language Learners department into other, undetermined programs. 

The comments came one day after African-American studies advocates said they were outraged over a plan to fold the 34-year-old African-American studies department, the only one of its kind in the nation, into one or several other high school programs. 

The consolidations, which will go into effect in a matter of weeks, are the result of an agreement signed by the school district and the Berkeley Federation of Teachers Aug. 20. 

The district, in negotiations, pushed for consolidation of any department that offers fewer than 15 classes a year. The move eliminated the need for several department heads and saved several thousand dollars, helping close the district’s $3.9 million budget deficit. 

The union agreed to the consolidation, said BFT President Barry Fike, in part to win “above average” pay for the remaining department heads. 

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

Teachers received copies of the agreement at the beginning of the school year, but the story did not receive broader public attention until Monday, with an article in the Daily Planet. 

The changes will not lead to a reduction or change in classes, but will eliminate department heads for the effected programs and, in some cases, prevent teachers from meeting on their own for planning purposes. 

Instead, teachers will have to report to staff meetings in their new, larger departments. Critics say instructors, as a result, will not have time to discuss issues relevant only to visual arts or English language learners. 

“There have been a lot of changes at the state level,” said Mike Walbridge, former chair of the ELL department, referring to new state standards and new state test. “We’re concerned we need to be spending time as a department on these new standards.” 

Walbridge gave the district credit for providing his department with a temporary reprieve – allocating funding from a federal Title VII grant to ELL teachers so they can continue to meet this year. 

“My biggest concern is when that grant runs out,” he said. 

A lack of meeting time, Walbridge said, could lead to “haphazard” planning, which would eventually effect students. 

“The concern, obviously, is that it’s a very special group of students,” said Father George Crespin of St. Joseph the Worker Church, which serves a large Latino population. “I understand the financial problems, but I would hope that the quality of the attention the students get would not be lessened.” 

About 300 students at Berkeley High, more than 10 percent of the total, are ELL students, according to Walbridge. Half of the students take ELL courses and the rest have moved into mainstream classes. 

The students speak roughly 30 languages, Walbridge said, including Spanish, Urdu, Arabic and Brazilian Portuguese. 

Miriam Stahl, a visual arts teacher, said instructors want to keep the visual and performing arts departments separate so they can have separate meeting time. 

“It’s not productive to meet together all the time when our curriculums are so different,” she said. 

Stahl added that the visual and performing arts programs would like to have separate department heads who could discuss their own, unique interests in discussions with school administrators. 

Performing arts teachers, for instance, have a particular concern with the management of performance space at Berkeley High, while the issue is less important for visual arts instructors, Stahl said. 

BFT President Barry Fike said Tuesday that he would be happy to take the issue of department consolidation back to the bargaining table, but that district officials seem unwilling to work out a new deal. 

District officials in the central office and at Berkeley High did not return calls for comment Tuesday, but Associate Superintendent for Educational Services Christine Lim told the Daily Planet Monday that the district was unlikely to renegotiate the consolidations.