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After Blistering Report Card, BUSD Board Holds Sitdown With State Evaluation Team

By PAUL KILDUFF Special to the Planet
Friday August 15, 2003

Confronted with a blistering state report on the state of Berkeley’s schools, Board of Education Directors took their first step toward addressing the 500 concerns raised in the evaluation by meeting with its authors earlier this week. 

Describing the mammoth 740-page report as “daunting” and “overwhelming,” the five boardmembers praised the document for providing a roadmap for dealing with district problems ranging from student achievement to employee training and financial matters. 

Berkeley Schools Superintendent Michele Lawrence opened the meeting by noting that no district in California has been able to meet the standards laid out in the report. She then passed out a battle plan from the report’s authors to boardmembers for dealing with approximately 20 percent of the problems. 

Instead of trying to tackle all the issues in the report at once, the list of “District Performance Standards” singles out 93 deficiencies in each of the report’s five categories—community relations, pupil achievement, and personnel, financial and facilities management—that should be addressed by October. Each category contains 15 to 20 problems to be addressed immediately and another 80 or so for later consideration. 

The district’s performance on each issue is rated on a zero to 10 scale as of last month. The document prioritizes each issue as a high, medium or low concern and assigns responsibility to a district administrator. They will be reevaluated again within three months. Standards highlighted in bold reflect issues the district had already begun to deal with before the report was released in May. 

Areas given the lowest possible rating, a zero, include the district’s ability to provide a “clear operational framework” for student body organizations that “deposit, invest, spend and raise funds” and the district’s maintenance of “project records and drawings.” 

On the plus side of the ledger, the district’s effort to “actively encourage parental involvement in their children’s education” is given the highest rating in the report at seven. 

The state says the district needs to focus on items rated a zero or one, while a two indicates that it’s in place in part and already being worked on. The state does not expect low-rated items to be completed by October, but does want to see progress.  

While a “one” rating calls for district personnel to attend training sessions and workshops to keep current in their field, district spokesman Mark Coplan said, “We don’t have any money for that. The dilemma here isn’t that we don’t want it. We have an $8 million deficit coming up this next year.” 

The state’s Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) prepared the report as the result of a deal brokered by former Assemblywoman Dion Aroner (D-Berkeley) between the school district and the state after the district was fined $1.1 million for filing late payroll paperwork. 

Thanks to legislation authored by Aroner, the state forgave the fine and instead put $700,000 of the money 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. FCMAT will file the first of four bi-annual reports on progress made on the report in December. 

At this week’s meeting, FCMAT official Joel Montero stressed that the report’s findings do not constitute “a report card” on the district. 

“Zero is not an F, ten is not an A,” he said. “It is a deficit analysis. It’s not designed to be a positive analysis. We analyze those things that we think need attention.” 

He added that the report’s rankings are not “very scientific” but that they allow for FCMAT to assess growth over time.  

School Board Vice President John Selawsky, armed with a copy of the report festooned with dozens of Post-it notes, asked Montero about the fiscal impact, for a cash-strapped district, of taking action on all the items listed. 

“There will be some fiscal impact,” said Montero. “You have to decide what you can afford, what’s important. Sometimes those are mutually exclusive.” Montero also encouraged the board to get over the initial sticker shock of the report. 

FCMAT, which conducts similar audits at districts all over the state, is used to being in an adversarial position with school board members and rarely holds public meetings with them. Montero described Berkeley’s plan for dealing with FCMAT’s findings as 100 percent better than what they usually get from most districts. He also encouraged the board not to rely on consultants to address the issues raised in the report.  

Boardmember Nancy Riddle said the report affirmed “what we already know or perceived,” but deemed it “managerially impossible.” 

Later in the meeting, Boardmember Shirley Issel asked Board President Joaquin Rivera to appoint a subcommittee on how to proceed with addressing all the issues raised by FCMAT. Rivera indicated that such a subcommittee should be in place in a matter of weeks.