Public Comment

Commentary: BSEP Replaced School Funds Lost to Prop. 13

By Mary Hurlbert
Friday September 29, 2006

“Please take a minute to fill out a survey!” I was strolling through the hallway of Jefferson School on a May evening in 1986. It was Open House night. My son Andy would start school there in the fall, and we were checking out the kindergarten classrooms, getting a feel for the place. I glanced down to see a card table manned by Jefferson moms. I picked up a survey and read: 


Please rank in order what is most important to you for your child’s school: 

• Smaller classes 

• Library books 

• Windows that don’t leak 

• Heated classrooms in the winter 

• A P.E. class 

• Science classes 

• Music at assemblies and in the classroom 

• Art 

• Field trips 


The list went on and on. My jaw dropped. All of these things were “most important” to me. I couldn’t rank them. I remembered the scary warnings about the taxpayer revolt of Proposition 13, about how cutting local property taxes would be devastating to our schools, but bringing my oldest child to Jefferson was my first in-your-face experience of what had happened. 

Voters had passed Prop 13 in 1978, property taxes had fallen, and for a few years the state lived on its considerable budget surplus--imagine that! But by 1986 that surplus had long since dried up, and California’s once tip-top public schools (the ones I had proudly graduated from in the ’60s) had fallen on really hard times. Efforts to make budget cuts as far from the classroom as possible had resulted in decrepit school buildings and playgrounds. Educational essentials that we had taken for granted when I was a student, like P.E., art, music, and electives had become “extras” that were barely affordable. Once something was eliminated from a school budget it was “off the radar,” as if it had never existed. 

Into the fray marched Berkeley parents, who didn’t want to send their kids to private school, and weren’t satisfied with the alarming conditions in our public schools. Those were the survey takers I met that evening at Jefferson School. 

The results of hundreds of such surveys, and of dozens of neighborhood and community meetings were gathered and synthesized into a brand-new local tax measure, called the “Berkeley Public Schools Educational Enrichment Act of 1986,” or BSEP for short. Squeezed into a tiny hole in Prop. 13, BSEP called for a Berkeley property tax based on the square footage of buildings instead of the property’s assessed value. As a property tax, BSEP required a two-thirds vote to pass. Berkeley voters rose to the occasion, passing the measure in November 1986 with a 76 percent yes vote.  

Passage of the BSEP tax measure in 1986 began a sea change in our public schools. With dollars specifically targeted to address the most pressing needs (to keep classes as small as possible and to provide high school electives, to provide new books and materials, to repair buildings and grounds, and to enable each school to have its own enriching programs), change was immediate. In the first year of BSEP: 

• So many windows were replaced that four glass companies had to be hired to do the work—it was too much for a single company. 

• Thousands of beautiful new library books were put into our school libraries, while embarrassingly obsolete books, like the one that said “Some day man will walk on the moon” were discarded. 

• Individual schools were able to offer a wide variety of enriching programs, ranging from Science and P.E. classes to hands-on Art and Music to field trips and guest performers. 

• Class sizes were kept as small as possible, while teachers received much-needed raises. 

• A district-wide Planning and Oversight Committee, made up of parents from each school, was established to ensure that the funds were spent in compliance with the measure. 

In subsequent years the momentum begun with BSEP did not let up. Berkeley voters passed two school bonds to completely renovate and earthquake-strengthen our schools. The original 1986 BSEP measure had a duration of eight years. In 1994 the measure was reconfigured slightly to address changing conditions (instrumental music was added, the “E” in BSEP was changed from “Enrichment” to “Excellence,” and the measure’s duration was increased to twelve years) and was approved by the voters with a resounding 82 percent vote. And in 1998 an amazing 92 percent of Berkeley voters reaffirmed their support for BSEP! 

Most recently, in 2004, after years of increased fixed costs (especially health coverage and salaries) a two-year measure “bridge measure” (Measure B), was passed, to enable the dollars generated by BSEP to accomplish what they were intended to. School libraries and classroom technology were strengthened, and funds were designated for professional development and program evaluation. The combined BSEP and Measure B taxes now generate $18-plus million dollars, nearly 20 percent of the district’s annual budget. The “E” in BSEP could really now stand for “Essential.” Without BSEP, life as our schoolchildren know it would not be the same! 

Twenty years later it is hard to remember just how shaky things were after Prop. 13. BSEP was the life preserver that allowed Berkeley schools to move forward and thrive. My son Andy, now 25 years old, and his entire generation of Berkeley schoolchildren, were the beneficiaries of those die-hard parents who said “this is not acceptable,” and dared to ask for decent schools for their children. We owe them a debt of gratitude. 

BSEP and Measure B both expire at the end of the 2006-07 school year. A new BSEP Measure (Measure A), combining the priorities of BSEP and Measure B, will be on the ballot this November, and we Berkeley voters will once again be given the opportunity to protect our public schools and to continue the tremendous momentum that began in 1986. Today’s incoming Kindergarteners are counting on us. 


Mary Hurlbert is a Berkeley resident. 


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