City and Schools Put Heads Together

Friday April 04, 2003

Berkeley schools Superintendent Michele Lawrence told a group of city officials and parents over the weekend that elementary school libraries may face serious cuts next year and that district staff, stretched to the limit in the midst of a budget crisis, simply don’t have the time to come up with a creative solution. 

“In two weeks’ time, this is going to fall to me,” Lawrence said at Saturday’s education summit between the city and the school district. “I’m going to have to make a decision and it’s going to be ugly ... I need you, I really need you, to do some problem-solving.” 

The summit was the brainchild of Mayor Tom Bates, who promised during the fall campaign to convene the event within 100 days of the start of his administration. 

Welcoming roughly 200 people to the summit, Bates promised a stronger alliance between city government and the Berkeley Unified School District at a time of severe financial crisis. 

“We have an elected school board and they’ve got a lot of different problems, but I want to support them to the maximum I can,” he said. 

But some participants raised doubts about whether the summit will actually result in any change, and collaboration may prove difficult in the midst of a financial crunch. The city of Berkeley faces a $7.7 million shortfall next year and the school district has already chopped $8 million from its budget, with $4 to $6 million more in reductions on the way. 

Summit participants, divided into six work groups focused on everything from mentoring to school safety, had difficulty escaping the shadow of the fiscal emergency.  

In the library services group, Lawrence suggested that the district and the city library consider pooling resources to save money — turning school libraries into community institutions that serve both adults and schoolchildren.  

But with the school district and city focused on immediate budget concerns, Lawrence acknowledged after the meeting that collaboration, in the short-term, is unlikely. The district, she said, will probably have to cut elementary school librarians in September and rely on teachers to fill the gap. 

Bates has made city-school district cooperation a top priority in his new administration, pushing last weekend’s education summit and hiring a former district employee, Julie Sinai, as a senior aide. 

Some in the district have raised concerns about the mayor impinging on Berkeley Unified’s mission to educate children. But Bates has worked to avoid a turf war, stating clearly that the city, which currently spends $15 million on youth services, intends to focus upon its traditional support role — providing health care services, on-site police officers and after school programming — rather than going into the classroom.  

“We’re not imposing,” Bates said in a recent interview. “It’s really a spirit of collaboration.” 

Lawrence embraced the mayor’s initiative. Caring for Berkeley’s children, she said, is a “shared responsibility” that should extend beyond the district.  

The school board has also signaled its support. Director Shirley Issel acknowledges that there was some tension between the district and the city under former Mayor Shirley Dean, but says the situation has improved. 

“Tom’s attitude is much more, ‘what can we do for you?,’” Issel said. 

But parent Michael Miller, a member of the advocacy group Parents of Children of African Descent, said the summit did not include enough minority parents, and doubted whether it would result in real change. 

“The problems we talked about at the summit are problems we’ve had for a long time,” he said. “I don’t think anything is actually going to get done.” 

The Berkeley Public Education Foundation and the Berkeley Community Fund co-sponsored Saturday’s summit. Both groups expressed interest in supporting any initiatives that come out of the event, but warned their budgets are tight. UC Berkeley officials also attended the event.  

The summit, which took place at Berkeley Alternative High School, came eight days after a meeting at the Berkeley Yacht Club that brought together the city, school district and university to discuss possible cost-sharing measures in six areas: information technology, purchasing, employee training, transportation and health and human services.