Lately there has been much discussion about how to help the Berkeley public schools thrive.
The North East Berkeley Association’s board considered the Berkeley Unified School District tax and took a historic position voting against Measure A. Before the vote, the board discussed and debated many issues at the core of public education funding, accountability and asked if A would result in better instruction and smaller classrooms. Many different opinions were expressed.
The first BSEP parcel tax created in 1986 passed three consecutive times—in 1986, 1990 and 1994—each time with a four-year renewal period, oversight including community input. Then the term increased to eight years. Last fiscal year BSEP, a $10 million tax, brought in an extra $970,000 because of high property values. Now the school district proposes combining BSEP and another “supplemental” tax while extending the renewal horizon to every 10 years for both taxes. Measure A’s oversight committees don’t require broad involvement from parents, staff students, residents and community since it uses “or” instead of “and” supporting exclusivity (5.B.i&ii).
What’s interesting about the NEBA board’s decision is that the Council for Neighborhood Associations and the Berkeley Alliance of Neighborhood Associations quickly followed suit voting no on Measure A. Is it fair to label these citizen groups as elitist reactionaries? They’re saying that you have to draw a line in the sand when you see the schools asking for $200 million without explicitly guaranteeing that the majority of the money will be spent on smaller classrooms, books, music and art supplies and teacher education.
Some neighborhood boards are troubled by what’s going on in Berkeley’s public school system. Even critics agree, we have the largest achievement gap in the county. Many children are denied access to the “academic choice” lottery which gives some families the opportunity to pick which school their children can attend. One parent told me only 25 percent get picked, while the lion’s share is locked out. The existence of the lottery suggests that parents know some of our public schools are much better than others. Many ask why hasn’t the school district let the city bond approved in 2000 to improve a warm water pool for students, teachers and the disabled? Others want to revise A while BUSD collects an extra 11 percent from the state about $8,244 per student this fiscal year (San Francisco Chronicle, Sept. 1).
These boards see the term of the measure increasing and the schools within the district not benefiting equally. They wonder whether the accountability and oversight will correct inefficiencies in they way the money is (or isn’t) being spent. Every student deserves to have the same materials from the day class starts until graduation day and strong core curriculum including music and art.
Will Measure A support what it claims? Clearly administrators salaries are increasing while student achievement scores are below average; enrollment is declining along with other key indicators like low graduation rates.
None of us have the all the answers, and school officials care too, but these neighborhood leaders are asking the right questions. There not questioning the efficacy of school taxes since 1986, but are instead concerned whether due diligence been performed to guarantee Measure A will go to the areas indicated.
CNA, BANA and NEBA want a revised Measure in March 2007 to guarantee every student has equal access to the best education money can buy in a safe environment. They want stronger guarantees about where the money is going and a shorter horizon than 10 years. The fine print in the full text of Measure A uses the word “may” numerous times in relation to how the revenue of Measure A can be spent (3.A.iv, 3.B.i.a, 3Bib, 3Bid).
NEBA, C.N.A. and BANA are not elitist reactionaries, but voices crying out citywide saying “wait, let’s do this right.” Students who could benefit from this money are not in a position to protect and guide where the money will go. Informed voters must make sure the money is well spent to guarantee smaller classrooms, materials, instruction and supplies. Is it wise to keep supporting a system and extend these taxes with loopholes if accountability for academic achievement is an issue? Perhaps the critics of NEBA will answer these questions for themselves and the rest of us.
Please vote on Nov. 7 or by absentee ballot. Our children’s future depends on you.
Eleanor Pepples is president of the North East Berkeley Association.
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