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School Programs Cut, Teachers Pink-Slipped

Tuesday April 01, 2003

As a pregnant sophomore at Berkeley High School two years ago, Linda Carcamo thought a child would mean the end of her education. But then she saw a newspaper story about the school district’s Vera M. Casey Parent Child Education Center and everything changed. 

A week and a half after giving birth to her daughter, Miriam, Carcamo placed her at the Casey Center, across the street from Berkeley High, and returned to classes. Two years later, she is on track to graduate and begin training as a medical assistant at Heald College in Hayward. 

“It has given me a second chance,” Carcamo said of the 30-year-old Casey Center, which provides young mothers with support services in addition to day care. “I cannot believe I’m graduating.” 

But Carcamo may be one of the program’s last success stories. With a multi-million dollar deficit hanging over its head, the Berkeley Board of Education voted to shut down the program next fall as part of an $8 million package of cuts approved in February.  

The board also dropped a pair of high school guidance counselors, raised some ninth-grade class sizes and gave pink slips, effective next year, to 220 of the Berkeley Unified School District’s 652 teachers. 

The board plans to rescind as many as 145 of those pink slips by June, when it must approve a final budget, and has already taken back 25 - providing a small reprieve for a demoralized faculty.  

But the budget situation only promises to get worse in the coming months. According to district officials, the school board must cut at least $500,000 more from this year’s budget and $3.8 million from next year’s budget to pay its bills.  

The cuts could go even deeper if the state Legislature, as expected, makes heavy cuts in education funding to help close a $26 to $35 billion statewide budget shortfall.  

Indeed, if the governor’s proposed budget passes, according to the district’s director of fiscal services, Song Chin-Bendib, Berkeley Unified could take an additional $900,000 hit next year.  

District officials are considering new cost-cutting measures that range from a reduction in elementary school library services to, in a worst-case scenario, the closure of two elementary schools and the elimination of school busing.  

In the meantime, program cuts and pink slips already approved by the board have had a devastating impact on parents, instructors and administrators. 

“Morale is pretty low - it’s the worst I’ve ever seen it,” said Joan Edelstein, president of Berkeley High School’s Parent Teacher Student Association. “When kids are telling you, ‘My teacher is angry,’ then you know there’s a serious problem and it’s affecting what’s happening in the classroom.” 

“It’s pretty discouraging,” said Jennifer Landaeta, one of 13 teachers at Washington Elementary School who received a pink slip. “I’m invested in this school.” 

Washington, which has sizable minority and low-income student populations, has revamped its faculty and leadership structure in the last five years and seen consistent growth in test scores. 

Now, with 13 of 19 teachers receiving pink slips – only one of them rescinded at this point – the Washington community is worried the school’s progress might be disrupted. 

Angry instructors who received layoff notices have placed large, pink signs in their windows with the words “Pink Slipped Teacher” scrawled on the front. And, two weeks ago, parents and teachers from Washington turned out in force at a school board meeting, dressed in black, to voice their concerns.  

Principal Rita Kimball is particularly concerned about how the layoffs will affect the school’s level of service to black and Hispanic students. Three of Washington’s four minority teachers have received layoff notices, she said, and five of the eight staff members involved in a staff development program focused on teaching to black and Hispanic children got pink slips. 

“We’ve made really positive progress,” Kimball said. “The group has learned individually and together so much about teaching practices for [minority] kids. If they are laid off, we will really have to start over again.” 

District officials are sympathetic but say that seniority rules forbid them from choosing who they let go. 

“Quite honestly, I don’t know what the board can do about this right now,” said school board director John Selawsky. 

That sense of helplessness extends to broader budgeting issues as well. District officials say the deficit is due, in large part, to factors beyond their control - spiraling health care costs, a declining economy and proposed state cuts that, all together, have resulted in an estimated 10,000 teacher pink slips across California.  

“This is a problem in public school funding, and not a bad school board with bad policies,” said school board director Nancy Riddle. 

Critics acknowledge the impact of larger forces, but still take the local leadership to task on a number of issues - including the pink slips. 

Under state law, school districts are required to provide notice by March 15 to any teachers they might lay off next year. Because Berkeley Unified’s budget picture was not clear by mid-March the district, like many across the state, issued layoff notices to a larger chunk of its faculty than it actually intends to let go - providing the school board with some flexibility as the June deadline for a final budget approaches. 

Barry Fike, president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, acknowledges the need for breathing room, but says the district went overboard in noticing 220 teachers. 

“Two hundred plus is excessive,” Fike said, warning that many young teachers, unsure of work next year, might seek a new job in the coming months. And with few teaching jobs available statewide, Fike added, many will be forced to leave the profession. 

Critics also raise questions about the quality of the district’s financial management. Two weeks ago, the Sacramento firm of Gilbert Associates, Inc. presented the district’s annual independent audit and reported 14 problems with the district’s financial infrastructure, including several serious “material weaknesses.” 

The report followed years of accounting errors that have made headlines and embarrassed the district – including the double payment of a large block of employees on one occasion and months of health care payments for employees no longer on district rolls. 

But officials say the district has made substantial progress in the past 16 months, under new Superintendent Michele Lawrence. With the help of the state’s Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, Berkeley Unified has put a new payroll and data processing system in place and begun to implement standard accounting practices that, experts say, should have been in place years ago. 

Officials at the Alameda County Office of Education, which oversees Berkeley Unified, say it will take time to rebuild a broken central office. 

“It takes several years for a district to run down,” said Associate Superintendent of Business Services Mike Lenahan. “It takes several years to bring it to where it should be.” 

Still, some worry that the district is suffering unduly in the meantime. Supporters of the Vera Casey Center say the district has mishandled the program’s funds and inaccurately projected a shortfall next year - leading to an unfair decision to close its doors next year. 

“This is no way to run a show,” said Berkeley’s former state Rep. Dion Aroner, who is lobbying the district on behalf of the Casey Center. 

Lawrence acknowledges that the district’s original projection of a $100,000 deficit for the program was high, but she says a significant shortfall is still likely. The district may be able to postpone the center’s closure beyond September, she says, but Berkeley Unified will have to close the center shortly thereafter if it cannot find new money to keep it afloat. 

If the program doesn’t survive the budget battle, Linda Carcamo says her peers will suffer. 

“Teens, a lot of times, they have kids and they just drop out,” she said.