Letters to the Editor: SCHOOL DISTRICT

Friday May 13, 2005


As a parent new to the Berkeley Unified School District, I am surprised at the tone of the opposition I’ve heard from people regarding the Berkeley Federation of Teachers’ proposed cost-of-living adjustment. The phrase “the district has no money” is often repeated, almost like a mantra. 

No doubt the district is in tight financial times. However, BUSD’s own literature states that they will be receiving $1.8 million dollars in increased funds. BFT puts this figure closer to $3 million, before Measure B. Also, in their projected cost for next year (included in the same flyer), BUSD includes a $700,000 payment to the teachers’ pension fund. This will not happen this year, as the governor was forced to back down from that proposal. Also, the BFT president has stated publicly that if this pension contribution goes into effect next year, BFT would seek no increases that year. 

All this is to say that by the district’s own admission there will be increased revenue this year, and the projected costs are not what they claim. Different numbers have been flying around, and parents don’t know who to believe—there needs to be an independent, public audit done to review the district’s books. If there is net revenue after costs are met, then let’s give a fair cut of it to the hard-working individuals who are entrusted with our children’s education. 

Sahoko Tamagawa 



What really boggles the mind is that the Berkeley Unified School district is willing to risk a teachers’ strike by not accepting the Berkeley Federation of Teachers’ proposal for class size caps. The caps would be good for everyone—certainly the students, who could be assured of reasonable access to their teachers; obviously the teachers, who could do a better job by not being spread so thin; and, yes, the school district as a whole, which would be able to attract and retain good teachers, would be able to keep test scores up, and would be able to better educate Berkeley’s student population. 

The teachers propose that the maximum number of students in each class be set at four or five students above a required average class size of 20, 26, and 28 students per class in grades K-3, 4-5, and 6-12, respectively. This contrasts strikingly with the district’s “average staffing ratio” proposal which commits o nly to limit the district-wide average class size to the above-stated levels (20, 26 and 28). The teacher who ends up with a class of 40, while her colleague in the next room has a class of 20, would kick herself for having acquiesced to such an agreement. I am not sure who the hapless students in her class would kick. But Berkeley parents like myself would have to kick ourselves for having voted for a school board that can’t recognize a good idea when it’s in front of them. 

Dove Scherr 

Parent of Malcolm X Elementary School first-grader  



A May 10 letter referred to the need for an audit of the Berkeley Unified School District’s finances, in order to help the community understand a complicated and ever evolving budget. Daily Planet readers should know that the independent audit of the 2003-2004 school year actuals was completed and delivered to the Board of Education at the board meeting on March 2, 2004. Additionally, an independent three member community audit committee sat with the auditor to review findings, and continue to advise the board and superintendent. 

For the 2003-2004 audit report, please refer your readers to our website at www.berkeley.k12.ca.us/index_news.html. Readers can view a hard copy of the 35-page report at any branch of the Be rkeley Public Library or in my office at the Old City Hall. I will also be happy to make a few video copies of the auditor’s presentation to the board available to check out from my office, along with a loaner copy of the report to follow along.  

Mark Cop lan 

BUSD Public Information Officer 



I want to urge all Berkeley families to learn more about the contract dispute between the Berkeley teachers union and the school district.  

I am the parent of a child in kindergarten at Oxford Elementary School. My daughter’s experience at Oxford has far exceeded my expectations for one reason: her teacher. This teacher creates an environment that is calm and stimulating; she gives children of different abilities the personal attention they need; she fosters communication and conflict resolution; she has inspired my daughter to love school. I can’t ask for anything more.  

Strong and experienced teachers are the most important aspect of any public school. In Berkeley, we have some outstanding teachers, but to keep them, we need to stay competitive with other Bay Area school districts. Right now, our teachers’ salaries and benefits are in the mid-range and dropping compared with other schools in Alameda and nearby counties. 

This year, the state is giving Berkeley a 4 percent increase in funding. But the district is, in effect, proposing a pay cut for our teachers by offering a small raise and a big increase in health care premiums.  

The teachers aren’t asking for much—just to be a priority in the budget. Isn’t tha t the least we can do?  

I hope Berkeley parents will support the teachers by learning more about the issues and calling the school board. 

Andrea Lampros 



Teachers deserve a raise. Individuals who enter the teaching profession take on the daunting task of educating children in a state where policy makers have set the bar high for academic standards but allocated funding levels comparatively low, 44th in the nation. This is particularly acute in the Bay Area where housing costs have appreciated in the d ouble digits and teaching salaries have stagnated in most cash-strapped school districts. 

The union has stated that it only wants its fair share of any increased revenues. The president of the teachers’ union has stated publicly that if the planned incre ase in revenues does not materialize, the union will not demand a raise. Union leadership has also offered to shoulder some of the increase in the cost of benefits. 

The question then becomes what is the amount of increased revenues? Is the projected amount stable? And does an increase in revenues imply a net increase, after any increased expenses are removed? The actual amount of increased revenue has been heatedly debated, which I find difficult to understand. I believe the place for such discussion is at the negotiating table, not in the inboxes of the community. 

The union accuses BUSD of shifting the budget numbers over time. The district holds the cards here, and should make a determined effort to make the budget numbers and projections more transpa rent and stable. If they did so, and both sides could agree on the net expected increase in revenues, an agreement should be in reach. At this point, rhetoric is plentiful, but trust is in short supply. 

The current contract expired in June 2003, and although all parties hope to arrive at a fair settlement, if the current state of impasse fails to produce a negotiated settlement, the union is considering a strike. We hope the union will not find this action necessary. A strike would cause great damage to all parties—the children would not get an education, the district would lose average daily attendance funds as a result of parents pulling their children out, and teachers would be laid off. Such a work action could backfire with additional and devastatin g consequences if Measure B and BSEP votes next year are adversely affected by a recent work stoppage. 

Let us put aside the rhetoric and posturing and focus on negotiating in earnest as mature, responsible, and open-minded representatives of teachers and administration. In that way, I believe this contract can be settled in a fair and efficient manner. 

Jonathan Squire 

Parent of a Berkeley public school student 



As a teacher in Berkeley for 13 years I can assure you that I do not want to strike. I can also assure you that the district is not telling you the whole truth, and at times not anything resembling the truth. Their most recent comparison of salaries was so loaded with wrong information that I personally wonder whether it was intentional or simp ly that they don’t know any better. In either case, I don’t find that I can trust much of what they have to say. At the forum on negotiations hosted by the PTA Council, one of the speakers, Mary Alice Callahan, stated that a budget is not only a financial document, but also a political/philosophical one. The question to ask is whether you agree with the “hidden” priorities of the administration/board, or whether you think that the priorities need to be different, and funded accordingly.  

Ms. Callahan, as a past union president, also spoke about the very real practice of building up the reserve over a couple of years, and how this has been done in numerous districts with no ill effects.  

Before you take a position on the struggle between the teachers in Berkeley and the administration/board, please be careful to fully educate yourself about the “truth.” 

Sam Frankel 

Teacher, Berkeley Arts Magnet 



In the current labor dispute between teachers and the school district, I find it hard to believe that the school district is “broke.” With the 4 percent increase in funding from the state, plus the very generous $22 million we Berkeley taxpayers provide every year through the three parcel taxes, BSEP, Measure B and Measure BB, it would seem that the district is adequately funded. I understand that the issue may well be that the district prefers to spend its funds in other ways besides increasing teachers’ salaries. However, it is disingenuous for the school district to claim it lacks funds.  

The best way for the school district to resolve this issue, is to allow an independent auditor to examine not just its books, but to evaluate how effectively and efficiently the school district is spending the money it has. A performance auditor could let the community k now how much money the district really has, and what choices could be made to provide the pay increase to teachers.  

For instance, after the B Building fire at the high school, the school board chose to spend $4 million of the insurance settlement to buy the old Urban Ore site as a location to park school buses. Now, five years later, the BUSD owned old Urban Ore site grows weeds, while BUSD is still paying hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in rent to park our school buses elsewhere. Maybe those hu ndreds of thousands of dollars a year could be better used to increase teacher salaries. 

Here’s another example. The superintendent of the Acalanes High School District (Moraga, Orinda, Lafayette) promised that administration costs for their district wil l not exceed 3 percent of its total school district budget. That’s a great goal. How does Berkeley compare? 

To have quality education, we need great teachers. We need to attract and keep great teachers by paying competitive salaries and benefits. Our kids are worth it! 

Karen Meryash 

Willard Middle School parent 



As a Berkeley teacher who is currently working to rule I would like to respond to the recent letters and op-eds in the Daily Planet which have complained about our work action. 

I would like those parents who have complained to imagine that for years and years you did volunteer work in your childrens’ classrooms, working long evenings and weekends to make sure things went well. (Perhaps you have done exactly that; many Berkeley parents have.) I would then ask you to imagine that due to the increasing disrespect with which you were treated while doing this work, you decided not to continue volunteering your time until you were treated more respectfully. Imagine that when people realized the di fference your volunteer work had made, instead of acknowledging or thanking you for the countless hours and years of hard work you had done, instead of supporting you to solve the problem that had caused you to stop volunteering, they responded with recriminations and guilt-trips, and simply told you to get back to work. 

I am sorry that by performing volunteer labor for so long so quietly, we teachers gave you the impression that you were entitled to our evenings, weekends and lunch minutes. We’re sorry if we left you with the impression that you were entitled to our services 24/7 no matter how badly we were treated or how little we were paid. 

Rather than being outraged that Berkeley teachers are protesting for fair wages, benefits and class size limits, I hope that Berkeley parents will start to question a system that can’t function without hundreds of hours of teachers’ unpaid labor.  

Berkeley teachers are willing to go back to performing those hundreds of hours—as soon as we have a contract which co mpensates us fairly for the time we are paid for. BUSD will be receiving $3 million in increased revenues from the state next year (not counting increased revenue from BSEP.) For a fraction of that sum, they could give us the minimal cost-of-living increa se we are asking for, while maintaining health benefits and limiting class sizes. 

Terry Fletcher 



With education budgets being cut and Republicans in state and federal governments determined to inflict more damage, this is a critical time for our scho ols and BUSD. The teacher’s contract dispute threatens to make the situation worse and, therefore, I feel compelled to defend the interests of my children attending a Berkeley school.  

BUSD teachers, I believe, are dedicated and (when not “working-to-rul e”) hard-working, putting in extra effort and hours. Compared to many other professions, they are underpaid. However, it is undeniable that BUSD finances are very tight and not going to get any better next year. Fact is, the school district is not a priva te company but a community institution paid for by California taxpayers and the people of Berkeley. BUSD does not make a profit and is not allowed to make a deficit. If teachers get more money or just cost more due to higher health care premiums and other benefits, there will have to be fewer of them than there otherwise would be. There could be cuts in sports, music and arts or closer to the academic core, all aimed at having fewer people on the payroll, i.e. layoffs. Programs could be cut or class sizes increased in order to balance the budget. This is not in the interest of my children.  

If teachers were leaving because of low pay, action would need to be taken. However, this is clearly not the case. Other districts are financially hurting just as muc h as BUSD. For BUSD being in the middle of the pack in terms of teachers pay, as the union claims, is not great but certainly acceptable in tight times.  

In their effort to better their pay I urge the teachers to keep in mind that BUSD can easily be push ed down a slippery slope. If a strike or other negative development caused parents to pull their children out, it could easily start a chain reaction leading to significantly fewer students and loss of community support with devastating financial conseque nces. At the end BUSD may be where Oakland is now. Such an outcome would not only be most unfortunate for families like mine, who are counting on BUSD, but would also be bad for the teachers.  

Last but not least, I have been very disappointed by the teac her’s work-to-rule labor action. First, it sends the message to our children that homework is not important, a terrible thing as every parent knows who has tried hard to explain to their children why they have to do homework in the first place. Second, th e students were given misleading explanations for the work-to-rule action, i.e., being told the district doesn’t pay the teachers for all the hours they work. As far as I know this dispute is about an increase in pay and health care premiums and not number of work hours. There would have been nothing wrong with telling the students the truth. A low point has been the removal of the children’s work from the bulletin boards in the hallways. This does nothing to put pressure on the school district but takes something away from the students. 

In the long run we can hope and work for a change in the political landscape and for getting education in California the support it deserves and desperately needs. However, for now wishes and political statements don’t help. BUSD has no choice but to live within its means. Tough as it is, it comes down to more money for the teachers vs. more teachers for the children.  

I sincerely hope that teachers and district will soon agree on a contract. 

Bernhard Ludewigt