Berkeley Unified is about to go where no school district has gone before. Come Tuesday the district will seek to wean itself from state dependency and embark on a mission to turn school funding upside down.
Known in the education business as an “adequacy study,” the district, with the help of community members and education experts, is setting out to examine the essential components of a good education, determine its price, and then figure out how to pay for it.
The goal is to determine the district’s needs and expenses and plot a course for securing funds so that Berkeley Unified isn’t at the mercy of California’s diminishing education resources, said Lawrence Picus, a professor at the University of Southern California and a participant in Tuesday’s community forum.
The call for an adequacy study gained momentum during community debate over asking voters for an extension of the district’s signature parcel tax—Berkeley Schools Excellence Project (BSEP)—which funds programs that state money can’t provide.
With most community members pushing a new long-term tax measure, Superintendent Michele Lawrence insisted the district should only request a two-year tax until it undertook a new round of strategic planning.
If the projected 18-month project is a success, the district will have a consensus on its education program and transparency on its costs as it gears up to ask voters to renew the BSEP measure in 2006.
Transparency could be key for the district. Lawrence has talked about restructuring the $10 million BSEP tax to give the district more flexibility in how it spends the money. With the district contemplating a two year tax, expected to range from $6.5 to $9 million to supplement BSEP, the 2006 tax measure could hit $20 million.
“Every place in the country that has performed an adequacy study has asked for more money,” said Picus.
Most recently, Picus and a partner were paid $400,000 to perform a court-ordered adequacy study for the state of Arkansas. Until now, such studies have been only performed on the state level, where lawmakers have greater leverage to raise revenue.
In Arkansas, Picus recommended $800,000 in tax hikes for new education spending. The state legislature has so far appropriated half that amount.
Picus, who is interested in leading the Berkeley effort, insisted, that even though the district lacks the power to tax, the study could help it sort out its educational priorities.
Lawrence has neither settled on a facilitator nor a price tag for the endeavor.
Starting in the fall she will appoint a task force of community members, finance experts and educational leaders to begin reviewing the district’s organizational structure and educational program.
The concept has widespread support among active parents, many of whom are anxious to delve into the district’s curriculum after three years where the district’s budget deficits took top priority.
After numerous cuts, Berkeley Unified goes into fiscal year with its first balanced budget since 2001, but the cuts have taken their toll.
“The situation right now is pretty severe,” said Jay Nitschke, a parent who is helping to organize Tuesday’s meeting. When his third grade daughter entered kindergarten the average class size for fourth and fifth grade classes was 26 students. Today those same classes average 32 students, with several classes combining students from different grades.
Nitschke hoped the effort would lead to improved cooperation with the city and UC and not necessarily result in a tax hike.
While, every community member interviewed supported Lawrence’s initiative, some feared that a task force selected solely by the superintendent could fall prey to entrenched interests.
“Hand picked groups that merely represent only a small subset of groups are not good and we have had that in the past,” said Derrick Miller, a parent who expressed interest in serving on the task force.
Another interested parent, Laura Menard, said school board members should also be able to appoint task force members.
Change doesn’t come easy to the district. When Lawrence arrived in 2001, many parents grumbled when she changed the district’s culture of school site independence and consolidated more power at the board level.
For the new effort to work, Menard said Berkeley Unified would have to reform the curriculum and toughen academic standards.
“This has tremendous potential, but only if we go through a preliminary process and have a conversation that is going to be painful for the community,” she said.
Trina Ostlander, director of the Berkeley Public Education Foundation, the sponsor of Tuesday’s event remains optimistic that the district can pull it off. “Nobody knows if this is doable for one community in an anti-tax state, but if they can do it in Arkansas they ought to be able to do it in Berkeley,” she said.