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Berkeley Schools Unsafe, Mismanaged, Says State

Friday August 01, 2003

The Berkeley schools are unsafe, poorly managed, and fail to address the needs of minority and special education students, according to a sweeping new state study. 

The 740-page report, compiled by the state’s Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team (FCMAT), finds problems ranging from uncertified fire extinguishers, to payroll failures, to a special education program which “has been seriously undersupervised and is out of compliance with many state and federal mandates.” 

According to the report’s findings, “the district is having some difficulty meeting basic legal and professional standards.” 

School district officials said the FCMAT report is fair and accurate, but downplayed its importance and insisted that progress is being made in many areas. 

“There are no significant surprises here,” said Superintendent Michele Lawrence. “We really have made some significant headway.” 

The study was funded through a September 2002 bill, authored by former State Assemblywoman Dion Aroner (D-Berkeley), that forgave a $1.1 million fine the school district owed the state for filing late paperwork in 2000, and poured $700,000 of it in into the FCMAT report. 

The bill requires the district to spend the remaining $460,000 to implement the study’s recommendations over the next two years. In December FCMAT must file the first of four bi-annual reports on the district’s progress. 

The report, compiled between February and May 2003 and released by the district this week, found a host of problems with the district’s special education program. Shortcomings included 189 individual education plans for special education students that were out of compliance with state and federal law, a lack of adequate teacher training and the absence of a basic manual on special education.  

Julia Epstein, communications director for the Berkeley-based Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund and parent of two children at Berkeley High School, said the report points to serious failings. 

“FCMAT’s blistering report on special education will not surprise parents of children with disabilities who have struggled to get access to appropriate services in Berkeley,” she said, in a statement. “For a community that prides itself on inclusion and diversity and calls itself progressive, it’s hard even to come up with a scathing enough adjective for Berkeley’s public school record on students with disabilities.”  

Ann McDonald-Cacho, whose son will be a senior at Berkeley High School this fall, said the sheer volume of problems in the special education program is overwhelming. 

“The state of affairs is that there are so many things to be fixed, it’s hard to know how long it could possibly take, because you can’t put energy into all things at once,” she said. 

But McDonald-Chaco said there appears to be a will among district leaders to address the problem.  

Ken Jacopetti, director of special education for the Berkeley schools, said the district is making a concerted effort to improve. A comprehensive review of compliance procedures is underway and a full audit of the program is due in early-September, he said. 

In addition, the district is taking steps to better integrate special education students into regular classrooms, he added. 

The FCMAT report also criticizes the Board of Education for failing to provide the district with a clear vision, particularly around the “achievement gap” that separates white and Asian students from blacks and Hispanics. 

Board of Education Director Nancy Riddle said the focus should be on pouring over student achievement data and making sure that money is spent on programs that actually work to close the gap, rather than initiatives that just “feel good.” 

The report, authored by FCMAT and four subcontractors, also finds consistent problems with school safety, an issue that has plagued the district for years. Poor security lighting, fire drills that are not properly conducted or recorded, and unsupervised adults on campus who go unchallenged by school staff, are all cited in the study. 

Board of Education Director Shirley Issel said the school safety problem is, in part, a cultural one. Berkeleyans like to have open campuses that welcome parents. 

“We choose to have our campuses that way and we’re uncomfortable with—you go to the office and check in—because that seems too structured,” she said. “But I think that’s important for student safety.” 

The report focuses on another cultural problem—something it labels “the Berkeley way.” Parents and staff at each school, according to the study, are bent on autonomy and shun attempts at centralized control. As a result, according to the study, curriculum and teaching vary widely from school to school. Centralization, the report concludes, “is necessary to provide direction and accountability.”  

Lawrence, who has been criticized for consolidating power in the superintendent’s office, said she welcomed the study’s findings. 

“That has been my consistent message to my community and to our personnel—that we have to create a unified school district that celebrates the independence of our schools but is linked by common values, common objectives,” she said. 

Kalima Rose, a parent activist and senior associate at the Oakland-based PolicyLink, which focuses on community engagement in public life, said parents would be happy to engage in a centralized process if problems were clearly laid out and the community was engaged in solving them. But absent that process, she said, school sites have resorted to their own devices.