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Board Turns Toward A More Moderate BSEP

Tuesday May 11, 2004

What promises to be the biggest local tax on the November ballot is looking like it will be a little less costly to Berkeley taxpayers.  

Two weeks after the school board declared its intention to go to voters with a tax that some board members wanted to set at $10 to $12 million—a roughly $260 increase for the average homeowner—the board last week appeared heading towards a more modest proposal that could trim the burden to taxpayers down to half that much. 

The new tax would be a two-year supplement to the Berkeley Schools Excellence Project (BSEP)—a $10 million parcel tax, set to expire in 2006, that funds specific programs the district’s general fund can’t cover. If the current consensus holds, a tax measure this November—separate from BSEP—would be used to restore basic services. In 2006, after engaging the community in a period of strategic planning, the district would then go before voters with a brand new long-term BSEP measure. 

The push to take a new tax to voters comes amid cuts in state funding and rising labor costs over the past several years that have forced the district to cut back on several programs BSEP was authorized to preserve—primarily low class sizes, music instruction and libraries. 

Last Wednesday the board received three tax plans that proposed to spend between $6 and $8 million to bolster those top three priorities, along with a few extras. 

A proposal from Superintendent Lawrence proposed including money for teacher professional development, research and evaluation services, and an outreach program for families that don’t speak English. None of those programs received much fanfare at the district’s two community planning meetings held earlier this year. 

The BSEP Planning and Oversight Committee mirrored the superintendent’s proposal, except it didn’t include money for staff development. 

A proposal submitted by the Berkeley Federation of Teachers included money for staff development, flexible grants to school sites that could be used for music and libraries and funds for instructional materials and facility improvements. 

B Federation of Teachers President Barry Fike said he expected his union to support the superintendent’s proposal as long as it included strict language that holds the district to its promised class size reductions. 

The proposals from both Lawrence and the BSEP committee call for class size ratios of 20-1 for grades kindergarten to three, 26-1 for grades four to six and 28-1 for grades seven to twelve. The BSEP committee estimates the reduction would require hiring between 31 and 40 new teachers at a cost of $3.1 and $4 million. 

The current BSEP measure devotes about $6 million to reducing class sizes, but that doesn’t mean Berkeley’s classes are smaller than other districts.  

In recent years, to deal with a financial crisis, the school board has declared a fiscal emergency, allowing it to set class sizes at a rate of 37-1, above state standards of 35-1 for secondary schools and 32-1 for fourth and fifth grades. The district has then used the BSEP money to bring class sizes down to the state standards, but not to the levels promised when the measure passed in 1994. The district uses a state grant to keep kindergarten to third grade class sizes at a ratio of 20-1. 

With the district planning to return to voters in two years for an even bigger tax measure, many people close to the negotiations stressed the need for transparency.  

“If this is the measure, that’s what the classroom should look like,” said Director Nancy Riddle. 

Co-Chair of the BSEP Committee Dan Lindheim told the board that as an act of good faith, “once the money comes in, it’s important not to declare a fiscal crisis.” 

In recent weeks Superintendent Lawrence—who at first appeared hesitant to proceed with any type of tax measure this year—has been the strongest advocate for the two-year tax proposal. She wants to lead a community conversation on how best to fund public education in the face of declining state funding before going forward with a new BSEP measure in November 2006.  

Although the majority community members active in BSEP had originally expressed a preference for taking a new long term measure to voters this November, Lawrence, who has attended the past three BSEP committee meetings, has apparently forged a consensus around her plan. 

“Definitely we listened to what the superintendent said [about the strategic planning]. The majority felt like that was a good thing,” said BSEP Committee Co-Chair Susan Henderson, who had favored going forward with a new BSEP measure this year.