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Public Invited to Weigh In on School Parcel Tax

By Suzanne La Barre
Tuesday April 25, 2006

Small class sizes, school libraries and music and arts education are just a few of the programs the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) will ask local voters to support this November.  

The district is considering a measure to renew two parcel taxes, the Berkeley Schools Excellence Project and Measure B of 2004, both slated to sunset in 2007. 

The measure would direct $19.6 million a year—the same rate as the existing taxes combined—plus cost-of-living adjustments into district coffers for 10 years. 

Superintendent Michele Lawrence has identified programs in need of continued funding. The options are up for public debate at a special Board of Education meeting Wednesday.  

About two-thirds would be earmarked for salaries to ensure small class sizes, high school electives and counselors for middle school students. 

The number of students-per-class in grades kindergarten through third-grade would be about 20, fourth- and fifth-grades would be 26, and middle and high schools would max out at 28. This is roughly consistent with current figures. 

A quarter of the funds would go toward programs to enhance student learning, of which 42 percent—or about $200 a student—would be dedicated to the individual schools, effectively giving sites more discretion over the distribution of dollars. The allocation of those resources would fall to site governance councils.  

Of the remaining 58 percent, 30 percent would fund staff at school libraries, and 20 percent would maintain existing arts programs for elementary and middle schools students.  

The last 8 percent under the umbrella “programs to enhance student learning” would support families of students with three parent outreach specialists, parent workshops and additional materials.  

Some financial leeway would exist should a school choose to expend extra resources for a specific purpose, like new band instruments. Up to 10 percent of money earmarked for one program could be rolled over to another program, so long as it doesn’t go over 15 percent of its annual allocation. 

Nine percent of the total amount would fund professional development and data-driven program evaluation. BUSD does not currently have a system in place that implements data to improve student achievement. Lawrence said she hopes to build an evaluation office that would require new research staff and software.  

Lawrence also suggests setting aside 2 percent of the renewed tax for public information, translation services and the Planning and Oversight Committee, which oversees the district’s parcel taxes.  

The proposed measure covers most bases built into the current levies, with one notable exception. More than $800,000 earmarked for school facilities in the Berkeley Schools Excellence Project would go toward student achievement; specifically $345,000 for middle schools and $420,000 for professional development and program evaluation. 

Some debate has focused on whether to increase the tax rate and allot funding for additional programs, such as an extended pre-school program, facilities, a healthy nutrition program, high school athletics, schools nurses, seventh period for all middle schoolers, which would allow students to enroll in an elective, and physical and mental health services. 

District spokeman Mark Coplan said the current recommendation—to maintain the tax rate as is—reflects the district’s fear that a rate hike could decrease chances of earning the two-thirds majority needed to pass the measure. 

“The real issue behind it is, if the board goes out for a measure in November and it fails, a third of our teachers would go away as would all of the music programs, and our libraries would close,” Coplan said. “It would devastate the district.” 

There is some evidence to suggest that voters would support a tax increase. In a telephone poll of 600 likely voters conducted in March, 77 percent of respondents said they would approve an additional $63 a year. 

A public hearing will be held Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., at 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way. For more information, call 644-6206.