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BUSD Interdistrict Transfer Policy Draws Criticism

By Suzanne La Barre
Tuesday August 01, 2006

As Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) officials gear up for the second parcel tax campaign in two years, some citizens question whether district administrators have done enough to ensure that school resources stay with Berkeley students. 

Illegal interdistrict transfers, where parents provide fake residency documents to get their children secure spots in desirable schools, are a given in many high-performing Bay Area school districts. But in Berkeley, the problem is exacerbated, critics say, because school district policy is far too lax.  

“There’s a very loosy-goosy attitude about it,” said Oakland resident Anne Kasdin, whose daughter attended Berkeley High as a legal transfer. “Parents lie to get their kids into schools. Everyone knows it’s happening, but nobody wants to talk about it … It’s been going on for years in Berkeley. I even know of families who ask (friends) if they can use their Berkeley address, and they say, ‘no, it’s not ethical.”  

To prove Berkeley residency, parents or guardians must show three documents, including at least one utility bill. But as Lorraine Mahley pointed out in a letter to the editor in the Planet, “Utility companies don’t care whose name is on the bill as long as the bill gets paid.”  

Other districts, like Alameda, Castro Valley and Livermore Valley unified school districts, additionally require lease agreements or escrow papers. Mahley suggests BUSD adopt a similar mandate. 

“I think it’s a good idea,” said school board Director John Selawsky. “I’m going to ask the school district to do that … I know there are people who give false documentation and we have nothing in place to regulate that, so we could tighten that up.” 

Based on information gathered at a meeting of local superintendents, Superintendent Michele Lawrence insists BUSD policy mirrors that of other school districts. 

“Our school district isn’t any more strict or any less strict,” she said. 

Each year, the 9,100-student school BUSD grants students legal interdistrict transfer permits on a space-available basis, contingent on students’ academic standing, attendance and discipline records. For the 2006-2007 school year, the district accepted 354 of 552 applications, which accounts for 3.8 percent of the student population. The vast majority hails from Oakland and Richmond.  

Those figures do not include all non-Berkeley students, since the district cannot account for illicit transfers. (The district does make house calls to verify residency, however, Lawrence said.) 

Illegal interdistrict transfers are “a highly known thing,” said retired Berkeley High School teacher Rick Ayers. “There are the wealthy kids from the Oakland hills, whose parents want to position them in an urban school so they can say, ‘Oh, look where we went to school,’ and then there are the poor kids who want to get in. …It’s not that Berkeley is that great. It’s just a testament to how bad schools are in Oakland and Richmond.” 

BUSD, under former Superintendent Jack McLaughlin, encouraged students from out of town, under the premise that robust enrollment spells more state money. In 2001, BUSD had 673 legal transfers. 

But that philosophy has changed under Lawrence who does not believe it is judicious to increase enrollment for the sake of funding, particularly since state funds have steadily dwindled over the years. 

BUSD now relies on parcel taxes for about 20 percent of the budget, which means the cost to educate Berkeley students—whether they’re legal or not—increasingly falls on Berkeley residents. 

Two years ago, the district passed emergency Measure B. This year, the district is asking Berkeley voters to renew that measure in addition to the Berkeley Schools Excellence Project, which combined with Measure B, will provide the district with about $19.6 million a year for 10 years.  

“Voters, parents and taxpayers need to feel confident that the scarce resources … are helping Berkeley students first, then students from outside of Berkeley can be admitted as resources allow,” Mahley wrote. 

But even if the district adopts new protocol, parents will still find a way to circumvent the system, Selawsky said. 

“If people go to that length to forge utility bills, they’ll go to the same lengths with lease agreements,” he said. “I suspect it’s not going to solve the problem entirely.”