Who Controls Our Schools?: By YOLAND HUANG

Friday September 03, 2004

Editors, Daily Planet: 

No word from the Berkeley Unified School District. At first, BUSD stated that they would stop the tractor and hold a meeting. The tractor stopped but there has been no word of a meeting.  

First issue: whose land is it? Is the sch ool district the property owner, entitled to do whatever it chooses? Or is the school district a trustee, holding the land for the real owners, us, the community, of which students are members? If the school district is a trustee, then it has a higher dut y, to always do what is best for the land and the public, which includes students and neighbors. 

The second issue is, how should decisions be made? Does the district make all decisions, or should parents and the broader school community be involved?  

D uring the past 20 years, the district, busy with its own failures, ignored the schools. In this climate of neglect, many school gardens sprouted through parent and community initiative. LeConte, Willard, King, Arts Magnet are examples. Parents and neigh bors, clearing weeds and garbage, planted the many beautiful school gardens throughout our town. 

Community involvement in decision making goes back even further. City commissions were formed soon after our city was formed. While city commissions are advi sory, our elected councilmembers give great weight and deference to the numerous commissions.  

In the school district, 16 years ago, we passed BSEP, our first school parcel tax. Yes, we taxed ourselves, but we also kept the power of how to spend that mon ey for elected committees of teachers, staff and parents at each school and at the district level. 

Now, we have a different school superintendent, one who was given the mandate by our school board to fight this “soft anarchy” and reassert district author ity. Unfortunately, the methods employed are little too Bush-like for my taste. A linear, hierarchical chain of command does not suit Berkeley well. This method promotes internal control and some forms of efficiency, but has closed the door to community participation. Research has shown that the best decisions are made by a truly diverse group. Small select groups cannot and do not make the best choices. The destruction of the Willard garden is a case in point. (The war in Iraq is another gross example.) 

Whereas in the past, school construction decisions were democratically decided by an elected and representative group, now, school administrators are the sole decision makers.  

It seems that the school district wants parents to do only two things, hand over our children and hand over our checkbooks. This is not a very satisfactory arrangement.  

There are now five people, including two incumbents seeking two seats on our school board. I challenge them to address this issue. For the incumbents, what is your response to the current linear, hierarchical chain of command at the district? To all candidates: in what form should participatory democracy occur within the Berkeley school system? I look forward to reading your responses.