Larry Picus stood center stage before about 75 parents Tuesday at the Longfellow Middle School Theater Tuesday as he auditioned for the leading role in Berkeley Unified’s great school funding adventure.
After his presentation, Superintendent Michele Lawrence said she had big plans for Picus, her former school finance professor at the University of Southern California.
“I’d like him to be involved,” she said. “He has expertise and we don’t want to do this alone.”
Picus, the director of USC’s Center for Research in Education Finance, is a leader in what in education circles is called the “adequacy movement.” Its central tenet is that when plotting school finance, the goal must be to examine the essential components of a good education, determine the costs, and then figure out how to pay for it. That would be opposite the general procedure of districts waiting to see what money is coming in from state and local sources, and then figuring out how to spend it.
After several years of finding herself at the mercy of state budget cuts with no promise of brighter times ahead, Lawrence has decided that the district needs Picus’ brand of strategic planning before it returns to voters in 2006 for an extension of Berkeley Schools Excellence Project (BSEP)—its signature parcel tax that promises to bring in at least $18 million annually.
“This seems to me the only option I can present to you right now,” Lawrence told the assembled community members. After three years of struggling to break free of budget deficits, she warned that the district would soon find itself back in the same morass of debt unless it figured out how to fund its top priorities in an era of declining state resources.
“The only way to get out of this spiral is to look at our systems and structures and determine which things are most critical for our kids,” Lawrence said. She envisions a task force led by someone of Picus’ ilk, with community members and education experts included to guide the study.
For Picus, taking on the Berkeley job wouldn’t just turn the district’s system of funding schools on its head, it would revolutionize the adequacy movement.
Until now, adequacy studies have only been performed on the state level, where legislators have the power to tax raise the revenues needed to boost education.
Picus insisted Berkeley was the perfect testing ground for a study. Displaying a sound knowledge of the district’s schools and at one point referring to the community as “we,” Picus said Berkeley Unified was just the right size to guarantee that the superintendent could keep tabs on principals while the schools could experiment somewhat with ways to meet standards.
His preferred approach is to develop prototype schools and then allocate the resources needed to ensure that all students have the tools to meet state education requirements.
“It’s a simple model that allows for transparency and is easy to understand,” he said.
Picus last employed the model for the state of Arkansas, which paid him and his partner $400,000 for their services.
Lawrence said Berkeley Unified wouldn’t pay as well as Arkansas, and that she hoped Picus could lead a team of graduate students, which could reduce the price tag.
“These things are not cheap to do, but I think it’s worth the investment,” Lawrence said. She added she would search the district to find funds to pay for the study, but hadn’t earmarked any yet.
Although adequacy studies universally result in a request for more taxpayer money—Picus requested $800 million for the Arkansas schools—synergies with local agencies including the city, county and UC Berkeley were the buzzwords Tuesday.
Picus argued that by teaming up with different agencies, Berkeley could boost its spending per student from below $10,000 to around $20,000.
Asked by a community member how the district’s partnerships were going, Lawrence said Berkeley Unified had made progress, but still lacked the accounting sophistication to fully connect with service agencies.
By and large, residents at the meeting were prepared to support Lawrence’s plan. “The superintendent deserves our support in putting together a unified agreement of our priorities,” said Nina Robinson, a parent with two children in the district.
Another parent, Gloria Soto, said she expected more concrete details on ideas for alternative funding, but was “totally confident that it’s worth the try.”
Wanda Steward, a parent at Longfellow Middle School, said she assumed the process would yield the same priorities—small class sizes and well trained teachers—but “if a process makes everyone buy into it, then it’s good.”
Derrick Miller, a parent at Jefferson Elementary School and former candidate for the Berkeley school board said the task force had promise but also faced pitfalls. Noting that Berkeley has a complex set of funding streams including a lot of volunteer energy, a good process could build on those resources, but if the process proceeds in the wrong way, the district runs the risk of people pulling out, Miller said.›