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BUSD Launches Long-Range School Planning Initiative By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday April 15, 2005

In the midst of continuing uncertainty about how much education money will be coming out of Sacramento—and what strings will be attached—the Berkeley Unified School District has launched a long-range initiative to identify the “essential components of quality schools” and reliable ways to fund them in Berkeley. 

Begun last January by BUSD Superintendent Michele Lawrence, the Designing and Funding Quality Schools (DFQS) project has set up two working groups to advance its goals and has sponsored three public forums using education experts drawn primarily from UC Berkeley. 

Meeting twice a month to hear from experts and review research, an Education Working Group, headed by BUSD Director of Curriculum and Instruction Neil Smith, and a Resources Working Group, headed by Berkeley High School Principal Jim Slemp, were originally expected to present preliminary reports to Lawrence in June. That timetable may be delayed, however, because the groups are relying on BUSD central staff to provide them with information on the district’s education programs and financing, and district staff has recently turned much of its attention to the district’s ongoing teacher contract dispute. 

The Berkeley effort is being packaged under the title “quality schools initiative,” a catch-all term that has been used throughout the country in recent years to describe widely different projects. 

Jay Nitschke, who was hired by the district out of the private sector to coordinate the DFQS planning process, said that Berkeley’s initiative is something Lawrence originally intended to do earlier but delayed because of Berkeley Unified’s pressing budget problems. 

“Traditionally, new superintendents begin planning in their first year,” Nitschke said. “But in her first three years, Lawrence was involved with balancing the budget and making sure the district’s business services were straightened out.” 

Nitschke said that when Lawrence finally launched the planning initiative, “she believed that the budget problems had settled, and she thought it was the opportunity to figure out what the district’s education programs should be, and how they should be funded. Of course, she didn’t know at the time that Governor Schwarzenegger would take actions that would disrupt the budget again. But we’re moving forward.” 

Nitschke said a new look at Berkeley’s education plan was needed “because the last plan was done 10 years ago. The district has been looking at things like how the music program will be implemented in each school, or developing next year’s budget. But there hasn’t been an overarching look at education and funding and the district as a whole in some time. Most public agencies don’t get to look long term. But this process is going to be looking at where we want to be in the next 10 years.” 

Nitschke said the goal is both to equalize educational opportunities for students and to raise the level of education district-wide. 

“[Berkeley High Principal] Jim Slemp describes education in this district as a listing boat,” he said, “with some of the students sitting up in the high end and getting a very high level of education, and some of the students sitting in the low end, and getting an education that’s not so good. Our goal is to do two things: level the boat so that all of the students are getting an equal chance, but raise the level of the water as well, so everybody’s level of education is lifted to a level that’s higher than at present.” 

Trina Ostrander, BPEF executive director and a supporter of the initiative, calls it “a timely issue.” 

“A structured, planning process for public education in Berkeley” is needed, she added. “Right now we don’t have enough facts. We just have a lot of factions” advocating their own individual education priorities. 

Ostrander said the quality schools initiative was launched partly because of the present BUSD budget uncertainties caused by Sacramento and Washington, and partly because of planning imbalances that go all the way back to the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978. 

“Because there has been so little money for education since that time, the educational planning process has been driven by politics rather than by what programs are needed to run a fundamentally sound school district,” she said. 

Ostrander said that the new initiative is “born of the same motivation out of which BSEP (the Berkeley Schools Excellence Project) and Measure B were passed. We want quality schools for every kid in Berkeley. We are willing to pay for this excellence locally. The difference is that the quality schools initiative is a more methodical approach.” 

Ostrander said the results of the initiative will be useful when BSEP funding comes up for voter renewal in 2006. 

“It will give us a blueprint of our educational plans to present to voters,” she said. 

Nitschke said the Berkeley public won’t have to wait a year to hear the results of the study. Extensive information resulting from the initiative’s meetings and public forums have already been posted on the district’s website under a Quality School Plan link on the main page directory. In addition, Nitschke said that the two parallel groups—education needs and finance—“intend to produce documents along the way, as they see fit.”