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Incumbents Face Stiff Challenge In School Board Race: By J. DOUGLAS ALLAN-TAYLOR

Friday October 15, 2004

One of the most closely-contested local election races next month is expected to be in the Berkeley Unified School District, where three challengers are opposing incumbent board members Joaquín Rivera and John Selawsky. 

Rivera is seeking his third four-year term on the five-member board of directors while Selawsky, the current board president, is seeking re-election to his second term. Board members are elected at large. 

While both Rivera and Selawsky concede that BUSD has been plagued with problems in the past, they say that the situation has been turned around under their direction. In his filed candidate statement, Selawsky says that “during my term...we have restored fiscal integrity and rebuilt budget, payroll, and personnel systems, successfully preventing a state takeover.” And in a late September debate in the school board chambers, Rivera said flatly, “This district is better off than when I got on the board eight years ago.” 

But the two are facing a stiff fight from Emeryville Assistant City Manager Karen Hemphill and social policy analyst Kalima Rose, both of whom have already beaten the incumbents in the area of fund-raising in addition to garnering several powerful endorsements. Community volunteer Merrilie Mitchell is also running, but with no listed endorsements and no reported money raised, Mitchell is not expected to be a serious factor in the election. 

Hemphill and Rose have each raised 25 percent more than Rivera and close to 50 percent more than Selawsky. Rivera has $3,000 more in his campaign war chest than either Hemphill or Rose, but only because he gave himself a $4,000 loan. And while Rivera and Selawsky have the endorsement of State Senator Don Perata, among others, Hemphill and Rose have won the support of both Congressmember Barbara Lee and the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, which represents some 700 teachers. 

Hemphill and Rose, while maintaining separate campaign organizations, are running what their campaigns call a “joint effort,” distributing a portion of their yard signs with the names of both challengers, as well as leaflets for the two candidates printed back to back. In her filed candidate statement, Rose includes a note urging citizens “to vote for Karen Hemphill to serve with me.” 

In community debates, the joint effort tactic has allowed the two challengers to double-team the two incumbents, who do not always offer the same defense. 

In a League of Women Voters debate at Rosa Parks Elementary this week, for example, Rose charged that “while the two incumbents tout the fiscal recovery that has been taking place in the school system, they neglect to say that the financial problems from which we are recovering began on their watch.” 

But Selawsky countered “it wasn’t under my watch,” noting that the district’s budget deficit was “already there when I was elected to the board in November of 2000.” Rivera, who was already on the board when Selawsky was elected, stared straight ahead and did not respond to the charge. 

And the candidates often clash over just how bad a shape the Berkeley schools are actually in. 

Rose and Selawsky differed at last week’s BFT endorsement meeting over the issue of how Berkeley’s teacher pay ranks with other comparable districts in the state. 

In 1999, BUSD and the BFT negotiated a four-year contract that sought to raise teacher pay to a competitive level. The two sides developed a complicated formula called the Composite Compensation Index (CCI), which compared beginning, median, and highest teachers salaries—as well as health benefits—in 33 school districts similar in size to Berkeley Unified. The BUSD and BFT agreed that over the course of the four year contract, Berkeley teachers would move from near the bottom of that list to just a little over the midway point (the 55th percentile). 

That contract ended in 2002-03, and Berkeley teachers have been operating without a contract—or a pay raise—since then. 

In her presentation to the teachers, Rose charged that Berkeley teacher pay has dropped below that 55th percentile mark since the contract ended. But saying that he wanted “to correct Kalima,” Selawsky countered that, in fact, Berkeley teachers ranked five points above that mark. 

Determining who was right depends on whether verified or unverified figures are used. 

According to BFT President Barry Fike, Berkeley teachers did reach the 60th percentile of the CCI in 2002-03, the last year of the four-year contract. In 2003-04, Fike believes that Berkeley teachers maintained that position, based on his understanding that teacher pay raises across the state were almost universally frozen during that year. But Fike now believes that because several school districts in the 33 district list have received pay raises this year, Berkeley’s position on the CCI “could be dropping now. We’re not keeping pace.” 

Another issue of contention is the academic achievement of Berkeley’s minority students. 

Hemphill, who is African-American, says that it is important to elect a minority board member “who looks out for all students, of course, but looks out specifically for the interests of minority students.” It is a pointed jab at Rivera, who is Latino. 

At the Rosa Parks debate, when both Hemphill and Rose charged that African-American test scores are “lagging” in the district, Rivera disputed that allegation, saying that “African-American and Latino students have made humongous progress” in recent test scores. 

Although African-American and Latino students have made some test score gains over the past year, the use of the term “humongous” is something of an exaggeration, if you take a comparison between last year’s and this year’s API rankings for elementary and middle schools in the Berkeley Unified School District. 

API scores rose an average of 19 points between 2002-03 and 2003-04 among African-American students in Berkeley’s 11 elementary schools. They rose an average of 16 points among Latino students in the four elementary schools (Thousand Oaks, Emerson, Cragmont, and Rosa Parks) in which Latino scores were tracked. However, that compares to an average 18 point increase in the scores of white students during the same period, so that the total average elementary school gap between African-American students and white students (237 points) and between Latino students and white students (208 points) remains virtually the same over the last two testing years. 

In the city’s three middle schools, African-American and Latino gains were somewhat better. African-American middle school students gained an average 26 points in API scores between 2002-03 and 2003-04, while Latino students gained an average 39 points in the two middle schools (Willard and King) in which they were tracked. That compared to an average 15 point increase in the same period among white middle school students. But minority middle school students still trail their white counterparts by significant margins (270 points for African-Americans, 189 points for Latinos). 

And in four of the city’s middle and elementary schools, minority API scores saw significant drops in the last year, with Latino students dropping 53 points at Cragmont Elementary and African-American students dropping 60 points at Rosa Parks. White student scores dropped in only two of the city’s schools, neither of them more than eight points. 

The League of Women Voters has scheduled at least one other candidates’ forum in the Berkeley school board race, Tuesday, Oct. 19, at 7 p.m. at the Schwimley Little Theater at Berkeley High School. Telecasts of previous debates are also being broadcast on Berkeley Cable Channel 33.›