Without taking a formal vote Wednesday night, directors of the Berkeley Board of Education vaulted ahead of their superintendent and left no doubt that they will present voters with a November ballot initiative that could raise property taxes by as much as $12 million.
At their first formal discussion on renewing the Berkeley Schools Excellence Project (BSEP)—a $10 million parcel tax targeted to cover specific programs the district’s general fund can’t cover—directors, one by one, declared the urgency of a November ballot.
“It would be irresponsible for us as a school board to let children suffer while we figure out correct funding,” said Director Nancy Riddle.
BSEP doesn’t expire until 2006, but increased costs and reduced state funding have undermined the effectiveness of the measure approved by voters in 1994, directors said. Over the past three years, the district’s financial crisis has forced the board to increase class sizes and cut music programs—two of the areas BSEP was supposed to safeguard.
Though directors were in agreement on moving ahead with a November ballot with funds earmarked for class size reduction, music, and libraries, they differed on dollar figures, the length of the measure, and how much flexibility the district should have in the distribution of the funds. At the urging of Superintendent Michele Lawrence, the school directors voted unanimously to approve a survey, at a cost of about $20,000, to gauge the political viability of different options.
A new BSEP measure on the November ballot also comes as the city is planning to go before voters with at least two tax measures—one specially designed for youth services.
BSEP has traditionally been the city’s most widely supported tax measure, garnering 92 percent of the vote when it was re-authorized in 1998. However, Berkeley voters have proved less amenable to new taxes of late. In 2002, voters rejected three out of four tax measures, and just six months ago, a tax revolt by a coalition of Berkeley residents, community organizations, and labor unions killed a planned $7.5 million city parcel tax to help plug its budget deficit.
Still, the school directors showed little fear that voters would spurn a call to help the schools. Director Terry Doran called for a measure that would double funding to $20 million and Director Shirley Issel proposed $22 million. For an average homeowner, Issel’s proposal would raise the annual BSEP tax from $234 to $495.
While the school directors charged ahead with BSEP, Superintendent Lawrence continued to prescribe a more cautious approach. “I’m expected to lead a group of people here out much further than I am,” she told the board. “Without appropriate analysis of what’s good for children, I think we’re being short-sighted.”
Lawrence has pushed for restraint while the district engages in a year of strategic planning to identify core needs and integrate BSEP funding into other district resources.
“This is what I came here for. I never get to talk about public education and what’s good for kids,” she said.
In an apparent compromise move, Lawrence proposed presenting voters with a five-year bridge measure (a short-term ballot measure intended to provide the district with current funds until BSEP is fully-renewed), with money dedicated for teacher development, music libraries, and language access, to supplement the current $10 million BSEP measure.
Four of the five directors had already stated their preference for a bridge measure that would preserve the current BSEP measure and infuse cash into the district while they plan a future initiative. But Board President John Selawsky feared that going to voters for a big tax twice in two years would be pressing their luck. “We are asking for a big amount of money,” he said. “That’s a pretty big pill for people to swallow.”
If the board agrees to a bridge measure, the vote for on a new long-term BSEP measure would likely come in March or November of 2006. Though BSEP expires in 2006, funding continues until June 2007.
The structure of a new measure remains undecided. Director Terry Doran called for more flexible funds for the district and school sites to employ as different problems arose. But after three years of struggling to fix its creaky financial and data process systems, other directors questioned if Berkeley voters would be comfortable giving the district more discretion over their tax dollars.
“Too much flexibility might not get us a lot of votes,” said Director Joaquin Rivera.