Voters to Decide Fate of BUSD Parcel Tax in November

By Suzanne La Barre
Friday June 09, 2006

It’s official: a renewed parcel tax to support Berkeley’s public schools will go before voters this November.  

On Wednesday, the Berkeley Board of Education unanimously approved language for a measure that will renew two existing parcel taxes, the Berkeley Schools Excellence Project (BSEP) and the bridge Measure B of 2004, set to sunset in 2007. 

The new measure, BSEP of 2006, maintains the current tax rate, and is expected to supply the district with about $19.6 million a year for 10 years. The tax will primarily fund small class sizes, music and visual and performing arts, school libraries and professional development.  

Board directors must finalize the approved language by passing a resolution at the June 21 board meeting. 

If passed, about two-thirds of the funding, or $12.7 million, will go toward maintaining small student to teacher ratios: 19:1 for kindergarten through third grade, 26:1 for grades four and five; and 27.5:1 for the remaining grades, save B-Tech, where the ratio would be 18:1. 

A quarter of the funds will support music and visual and performing arts, libraries, parent outreach and school site coffers. The remaining budget will fund professional development and implementation, including the cost of staffing a public information officer and others.  

The tax would be levied per square-foot on private and commercial properties. Low-income seniors qualify for an exemption. 

Directors heralded the measure as a compromise. 

“No one individual, no one group, no one organization gets everything they want in this measure,” said Director John Selawsky. “But if you look at it in its entirety, everyone gets something. I think we need a little perspective here.” 

Elementary school and middle school students spoke at Wednesday’s meeting in support of the measure, as did a handful of adults, including school board candidate Karen Hemphill: 

“I am very pleased and happy that the board is going ahead with approving the tax measure for the Berkeley Unified School District,” she said. “Adequate funding is absolutely necessary (for school programs), and this is a good step in that direction.” 

The language of the ballot initiative did not go uncontested, however. The president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers (BFT), the union representing 700 teachers, counselors, librarians and others, criticized the measure for expressing small class sizes in terms of “goals” rather than solid figures and for not placing a cap on fiscal emergencies. 

“It is our opinion that compared to the current BSEP, the district has proposed language that loosens—and not tightens up—accountability,” said Barry Fike. 

Directors acknowledged the criticism, but said Wednesday that flexible language serves as a safeguard against future unknowns.  

The board will maintain its commitment to class sizes unless there is a severe fiscal crisis, said Director Nancy Riddle, who is up for reelection in November. 

Director Shirley Issel, who will also vie to maintain her seat on school board this fall, concurred. “You’re going to have to trust us,” she said.  

Yolanda Huang, a former BUSD parent and organizer of Berkeleyans Endorse School Management Accessibility, Accountability, Responsiveness and Transparency (BeSMaart), doesn’t buy it. The district has asked for the public’s trust in the past and has not upheld its end of the bargain, she said, citing poor management and planning of school maintenance operations.  

“I want to spend this money on kids,” she said. “I just want to make sure the kids benefit and it isn’t diddled away on administrators.”  

A poll conducted in March found that among 600 potential voters more than 75 percent would support the tax. The measure needs a two-thirds majority to pass. 

On Tuesday, Bay Area voters approved eight of 12 tax measures to support public schools, including $435 million in bond money for Oakland Unified School District facilities, the largest bond ever passed for Oakland schools.