Editors, Daily Planet:
If you ever wondered why the Berkeley Public Schools are in such a state of chaos, you don’t need to look farther than the School Board’s pathetically inept handling of the East Campus/Derby Street Park issue at the March 9 meeting. The meeting opened with a series of student speakers, clearly and passionately articulating their need for adequate facilities and how the board needed to move forward on the Derby Street Park project to fill that need. The opposition: a series of speakers unaffiliated with the schools, who all professed their concern for the student’s plight, their personal or professional unwillingness to do anything about it that might effect their own personal interests, and their belief that the process could only be fair as long as it excluded any option other than the ones they could personally accept. So, who did the School Board choose to support? If you guessed the students and their needs, you haven’t been around Berkeley politics very long. While some (Doran and Rivera) stood firm on principle to the board’s historical commitment to the larger, multi-purpose, Derby-closed plan, the majority decided to duck and run. Why? Well, John Selawsky—always reliably more loyal to his wife’s Ecology Center friends than to the students he has sworn to serve—seemed to think that a baseball field would cost $3 million (actual cost estimate of closing Derby street on top of the current Derby-open plan: about $500,000). Of course, the motion John voted against was to come up with an actual cost estimate for the field, but why bother to learn the facts when you can use wild exaggeration so effectively. (By the way, if you are wondering how John and his wife can be “neighbors” of East Campus for purposes of arguing against the field, but not close enough a “neighbor” to be legally precluded from voting on the project as a conflict of interest, well, John answered that question last night: You aren’t officially a neighbor of a school district project unless you live within 300 feet of the project. Good news in a way: This view will reduce the number of people who can publicly oppose any project as a “neighbor” to a handful.) Shirley Issel mumbled something incomprehensible about trust—maybe someday she will be able to explain her feelings more articulately to the students who trusted her previous public commitment to the Derby-closed project. Nancy Riddle seemed to support the Derby-closed project, but think that the City Council needed to do something before the School Board did, then effectively took the whole issue off the table for everyone by voting against it. Go figure. It fell to Michele Lawrence to explain the real reason the district won’t address the needs of its students: The administration is so mired in other crises of mismanagement that they just don’t have time right now to do anything difficult or time-consuming for their core constituency, the students of Berkeley.
The truest and most significant moment of this whole sorry affair was the third vote cast for moving forward on the Derby-closed plan, the articulate and powerful statement of the student director, Lili Dorman, who restated what had become obvious from the rest of the evening: At the Berkeley School Board, students (and their votes) just don’t count.
Editors, Daily Planet:
Now that the shock is starting, barely, to subside, it’s obvious that what’s needed to eventually build a high school ball field is a single, joint public commitment from the schools superintendent, the mayor, the school board and the City Council to build the field.
Without such a commitment, the issue will remain a political hot potato, officials can duck and mumble, and the city will remain divided. Such a commitment would ensure that the interim part one of the project, which will come before the board fairly soon, remains interim and does not create politically charged facts on the ground—for instance, a tot lot or other neighborhood oriented facilities that have a permanent feel to them.
Such a commitment would not mean that a field would be built tomorrow. It would mean that the city and the school district could begin costing out the project, set timelines for decisions and keep the momentum going.
Editors, Daily Planet:
On March 9 the School Board voted down a resolution to study the design of a regulation baseball field on the East Campus site, a plan that would require closing Derby Street between Milvia and Martin Luther King Jr. Way.
For the last several months representatives of the East Campus Neighborhood Association (ECNA) and other Berkeley residents have participated in a community design process led by the school district and their architects to design new sports fields that fit within the boundaries of the existing block bound by Derby, MLK Way, Carleton and Milvia. This group is close to reaching consensus on a plan that features a much-needed practice field for football, soccer, lacrosse and field hockey varsity teams as well as provides a practice infield and batting cages for the baseball teams. To raise the issue of closing Derby Street at this late stage threatened community trust built up through this design process. We are encouraged that the School Board recognized the importance of remaining faithful to the process that they themselves set into motion six months ago.
The members of ECNA were also impressed by the testimony of Berkeley High School baseball players regarding the lack of adequate facilities for their sport in Berkeley, and it is clear that all members of School Board place a high priority on finding better accommodations for the baseball team. As parents and residents, we support the school district and city efforts to improve athletic facilities for all of our students.
It is critical that these decisions be grounded in the realities of Measure A funding. The worst outcome, in our view, is for the school district to pursue a plan for a regulation baseball facility that there is no funding for, let alone neighborhood support. To allow the East Campus site to continue to languish as it has for the last five years, unused and unusable, benefits no one. The current plans for new playing fields within the borders of the existing site are relatively affordable and could be built now. Our students, including the baseball players, need all the fields we can afford to build.
ECNA supports an on-going discussion of these issues in a setting that favors an open, respectful exchange of ideas and issues rather than contentious debate. We would like the opportunity to explain in detail why we strongly favor keeping Derby Street open and to discuss city-wide alternatives. Likewise the baseball field advocates deserve an opportunity to explain their concerns and goals to the neighborhoods and community members. We think there is room for cooperation on this matter, and that cooperation will best serve the needs of our kids and of the community.
Peter Waller, Susi Marzuola and members of the
East Campus Neighborhood Association
Editors, Daily Planet:
After attending the School Board meeting last Wednesday night, I was perplexed that neighbors of the Derby baseball field were opposed to a field in their backyard because of the threat of drugs and traffic to the area. Of course, drugs are an issue in any neighborhood and nobody likes traffic. But fear should not be used to turn neighbors against the issue. The farmers market posses similar issues. This land is suppose to be School Board property and used for the best interest of the students and the students needs aren’t being addressed. No one mentions that the students have been without a field for far too long and this is a necessity. Whose needs are being served here anyway?
Editors, Daily Planet:
I’m really disappointed that the School Board is refusing to build a baseball field at Derby Street. Instead, the School Board is listening to neighbors who are not open to other peoples’ needs. Isn’t school money supposed to be used for the students?
Years ago, lots of really great ball players came from this area: Frank Robinson, Joe Morgan, Rickey Henderson, Gary Pettis, Dave Stewart and the great Joe DiMaggio.
We still have many talented players on the Berkeley High team, but we don’t have a good field to play on. Baseball is one of those sports that anyone of any build can play. You don’t have to be 6’5” tall and you don’t have to weigh 250 pounds. The one requirement of baseball is that a team have a field that will help them to be as good as they can be, and San Pablo doesn’t meet that requirement.
It seems to me that many who are in a position to make decisions about Derby Street are in favor of the proposal put forward to build a baseball field for Berkeley High. Why can’t they get their act together and make it happen?
Berkeley High baseball player
Editors, Daily Planet:
I’m writing to you about the most important thing in my life: baseball. More specifically about how the Berkeley High Baseball program requested a new baseball field that is badly needed, at Derby Street. Our request to the Berkeley Unified School District Board was denied March 9. It was voted down 3-2. I was the only remaining player when this verdict was reached along with the head of the baseball program Tim Moellering and a few other coaches and parents. When I heard that it was voted down my heart sank. The night started off with about 60 players from all three teams, freshman, varsity and junior varsity, and around 20 parents and coaches. Four players spoke and made compelling arguments about why we need this baseball field. Many of the people who were opposed to the baseball field spoke as well, and in my mind, made invalid arguments or suggestions that were inadequate.
At the board meeting all of the members of the board spoke. Two of the three members of the board who voted against the proposal of the Derby Street Field said that they were in favor of closing Derby and building a regulation size baseball field, but they said that they couldn’t vote for it because the change in the proposal was made at the last minute. If you are for it why not for vote for it. What kind of example does this set for the students of Berkeley?
The Berkeley School Board was created to make decisions based on the needs of Berkeley schools, teachers, and students. Now don’t you think if Berkeley High baseball, made up of Berkeley High students, needs a baseball field then the School Board would support them if they asked for one? But in the meeting on March 9 the School Board supported the people opposing the field (the neighbors in the area) not the students. Yet the neighbors never provided a reason for why they opposed the baseball field. Why not have a well maintained baseball field with a bunch of nice kids rather then a bunch of falling down buildings?
There are about 60 students who participate in Berkeley High baseball. Currently, we have one field, San Pablo Park, that is the only one useable for our three baseball teams. How are we expected to have sixty kids practice on one field? San Pablo Park doesn’t even belong to Berkeley High, it belongs to the city. We have no priority over the field. We get kicked off of it by people like Albany Little League. Most of the teams in our league that we have to compete against, have not only one field but multiple fields for their team’s.
The decision on March 9 made it so that I won’t be able to play on the Derby Street field before I graduate. However, I will still fight for it for the future students of Berkeley High. I hope that the School Board comes to realize that after giving the basketball players a new gym, we need a new baseball field. And the next time that they make a decision on a new field they vote yes.
Editors, Daily Planet:
On May 5, 2004 the BUSD Board passed a motion, 4-0-1, stating “their support for pursuing the development of a large multi-purpose athletic facility that would include a regulation sized baseball field.” On March 9, 2005, less than one year later the board voted down, 3-2, spending a relatively small sum ($10,000) to amend an ongoing planning process for East Campus to obtain the information required to make a decision about building this baseball field. What happened?
After the May 5 vote a fair amount of effort by a number of people went into helping BUSD achieve its stated goal. Prior efforts to develop a baseball field at East Campus met stiff resistance from surrounding neighbors. In past years the neighbors enlisted the support of the Farmer’s Market who in previous plans was to be relocated off the site.
After the vote, during the summer of 2004, talks were held about a land swap, Derby Street going to the school district while the school district would give up their western frontage along MLK. The Farmers’ Market would be moved off Derby and relocated along MLK. In the relocation the Farmers’ Market would have the same or greater square footage than they currently occupy; frontage along a very busy street; a shed roof with lights built to cover their farmers who were still selling during the wet months and; access to water, power and bathrooms from a restroom/equipment building adjacent to their site. Easily a superior facility to what they currently occupy.
In the fall of 2004, new council people were elected. The issue of the baseball field was discussed and in the opinion of many people familiar with city hall, the votes were there to approve the closure of Derby and the potential land swap. But the council wasn’t going to take on this political hot potato without some serious commitment by the school board.
What were needed next were a plan and an accepted financing package by the school board to build the field. The field was well on its way.
Enter Michelle Lawrence, superintendent. Now there are many things going on at Berkeley High and building a baseball field, much less a controversial one, is just not something that is very high on her list of things to do. But feeling some pressure to do something with East Campus in late fall she had BUSD, with board approval, enter into a design contract for East Campus that specifically excluded dealing with the issue of closing Derby and building the regulation size baseball field the board said it wanted only a few months ago.
In the board’s mind this plan would result in the demolition of some buildings on site that had become a neighborhood blight as well as the development of a “temporary” athletic field. But in the Berkeley way, this “temporary” field took on a life of its own and now includes such things as a practice infield, basketball courts, community garden and tot lot, etc. Lew Jones, who is overseeing the planning and development of East Campus for BUSD acknowledges it makes no sense to undertake this “temporary” development if BUSD intends to build a baseball field within a few years.
By early February of 2005 it had become clear to the larger community that this was no temporary field that was being planned. Indeed this was THE field and the regulation baseball field the board said they wanted wasn’t even being looked at. Given that this was the permanent field, the consultant contract needed to be amended to include developing a plan for a baseball field along with the costs for closing Derby. Cost $10,000. Seemed like a relatively mild, good management idea. After all, who in the world would say they wanted to build a baseball field and then reject spending a small sum to find out what it would cost? The board of BUSD.
Nancy Riddle and Shirley Issel, school board members who had previously voted to develop a baseball field only nine months ago, now voted against spending the money to add a baseball field to one of the East Campus options. Altering the 4-0-1 votes for to 3-2 against. As they voted against the change, their stated reason was that they didn’t want to disrupt the community process that had been put in place. However, according to them, they still supported the baseball field.
Now you might wonder how these school board members can say they support putting in a baseball field but vote against spending a small amount of money to have plans and costs developed so they can make a good management decision as to whether the costs of building this field are in keeping with the perceived benefits.
The answer lies in the power of Michelle Lawrence and the inability of these elected officials to take responsibility for controversial decisions. If Derby Street is an example of how BUSD functions, it’s Michelle Lawrence that sets priorities and determines what is going to happen in the schools, not the School Board. There is nothing wrong with this other than that many people in the community are under the impression that it worked the other way around.
As for the two school board members when they agreed to the initial contract, according to Nancy Riddle, “Our linear thinking was that we would first develop a temporary field and then a permanent field later.” The process that emerged was one that specifically excluded the entire segment of the community that wanted a baseball field while including only those people who didn’t want a baseball field. What kind of public process looks at only one side of an issue? Not a very good one.
But these two elected officials facing not only Michelle’s reluctance but the wrath of surrounding neighbors, could not bring themselves to agree with the obvious, that the community process that was set up by BUSD was fundamentally flawed. It didn’t serve a large segment of the community who had as much right to have their views presented and discussed, as did the neighbors. Somehow, those of us who are used to Berkeley politics have always thought that one of the benefits and nightmares of Berkeley was that public officials would always support a process where the views of all members of the community were heard and weighed before decisions were made. Not in this case.
Go ask Nancy and Shirley why they felt it was important for BUSD to continue the one sided community process and only pay to develop a plan with no baseball field while it was not important for them to consider the needs of their students and the rest of the community and develop a plan for the baseball field they stated they wanted on May 5. Elected officials need to be able to see when the path chosen is headed in the wrong direction and have the backbone to push for corrections when required. This inability should concern all of us as it transcends the issue of the baseball field.