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City Schools Earn FCMAT’s Praises

By Matthew Artz
Tuesday January 20, 2004

Berkeley schools have come a long way in the past six months, according to a progress report issued by state auditors. 

The 200-page document, released last week by the state’s Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team (FCMAT), commended Berkeley Unified School District for tackling several of its administrative shortcomings—including its special education program and finance systems—in the six months after auditors issued their scathing initial report. 

All five operational areas—Community Relations, Personnel Management, Pupil Achievement, Financial Management and Facilities Management—showed improvement, with finance, long the district’s Achilles heel, singled out for special praise. 

“They’ve done good work. You can see the change in their culture,” said FCMAT Management Analyst Roberta Mayor. 

School officials cautioned against reading too much into improved scores, considering that many of the 98 standards FCMAT decided to review in the progress report had already been identified by the district for reform and that FCMAT had incentive to grade low in the on the initial audit so scores can rise. 

“Any consultant wants to show that they made an impact,” said Facilities and Maintenance Director Lew Jones. “If the choice [on the initial report] is to give you a two or a four, they’ll give you a two so they can jump from two to six really quickly.” 

A look at FCMAT’s website reveals that of the four districts to receive six-month progress reports all but one—West Fresno Elementary—showed across-the-board improvement similar to Berkeley’s. 

FCMAT itself faces an audit ordered by Assembly Education Committee Chair Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles) to review oversight issues as well as its effectiveness in helping districts stave off bankruptcy. 

The agency has faced local criticism after failing to keep Oakland Unified solvent and under local control. 

Berkeley Unified Superintendent Michele Lawrence said she was pleased with the progress demonstrated in the latest report and said FCMAT intervention had been positive for the district as it pared down its deficit from $6.5 million to $2.4 million over the past year. 

“We had many systems and processing areas that had deteriorated over time,” she said. “This gives the community confidence that we’re getting out from under our financial problems.” 

The report is the first of four follow-up evaluations scheduled after FCMAT issued a 740-page comprehensive review last year. Each progress report will review the district’s progress towards implementing around 100 of the 472 standards measured by the initial audit. Berkeley faces no penalty if it fails to improve its score or implement standards. 

The audit was funded from a 2002 bill authored by former Assemblywoman Dion Aroner (D-Berkeley) that forgave Berkeley Unified $1.1 million owed the state for filing late paperwork in 2000, and poured $700,000 towards the audit, with the rest allocated towards helping the district implement FCMAT suggestions. 

FCMAT analyst Mayor said Berkeley Unified had “made tremendous gains” at installing systems and processes to monitor its budget. The report also credited the much-maligned Special Education program for reforming students’ education plans to conform to state law and developing systems to promptly place students into appropriate courses, though it warned the program continued to burden the general fund. 

Berkeley Unified was also commended for standardizing curriculum throughout its schools and improving the dissemination of information, though auditors wanted to see plans for increased student participation on mandated tests and parent outreach. 

On a grading scale from 1 to 10, Community Relations rose from 5.67 to 6.03, Personnel Management 4.40 to 4.71, Pupil Achievement from 4.30 to 4.96, Financial Management from 3.08 to 3.88 and Facilities Management from 5.75 to 6.08. 

Sentiments towards FCMAT vary throughout the district. Dan Lindheim, co-president of the Berkeley Schools Excellence Project Planning and Oversight Committee, questioned why the state required such an extensive study, costing hours of staff time, for essentially a financial management problem. 

“Look at pupil achievement,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of bright people in Berkeley looking at the achievement gap for long time. I’d be surprised to see a consultant come in and say just do XYZ and the problem will be solved.” 

However Tina Brier, director of classified personnel, said FCMAT consultants did more than just help her prioritize reforms and set deadlines for implementation. “The consultants gave us a lot of ideas of how to fix some things. Some were jewels,” she said. “You don’t hear about that part of things.”