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Lawrence Prepares to Hand District Over

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday January 25, 2008
Superintendent Michele Lawrence presides over her last school board meeting Wednesday. Photograph by Mark Coplan.
Superintendent Michele Lawrence presides over her last school board meeting Wednesday. Photograph by Mark Coplan.

The perpetual ring of the telephone shatters the otherwise calm interiors of Michele Lawrence’s spacious office in the headquarters of the Berkeley Unified School District at 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way. 

She has exactly five minutes, she says, for an interview. “After that I need to prepare for the last school board meeting of my life.” 

Berkeley’s first Latino superintendent will step down from her role on Feb. 2, handing the job off to Bill Huyett. But—as Lawrence points out time and again during the course of the evening—she will continue to fight for the rights of public education after retiring. 

“As a state we have our priorities in the wrong place,” Lawr-ence told the Planet Wednesday, referring to Gov. Arnold Schwarz-enegger’s proposal to slash K-12 funding by $400 million this year and $4.4 billion in 2008-09. 

“We cannot continue to cut funding out of public education and expect a healthy state, especially when the future rests on the education and training we give our children,” she said. “As a private citizen I will have a little more flexibility to voice my opinion and more free time. I want to write letters and organize campaigns to educate people and create awareness.” 

The walls of Lawrence’s office are bare. 

“I have been packing,” she says. “All my paintings and books are waiting for me at home. Now I just have to mail in my key.” 

Bidding farewell to more than 30 years in public education is not easy, but Lawrence conducted business at usual at the meeting, correcting the smallest errors in the school’s annual budget. 

“It seems surreal,” she finally said in a brief speech to the Berkeley Board of Education while accepting a proclamation naming Feb. 1 as Michele Lawr-ence Day in the district this year. 

“But I am not dying, I am only retiring.” 

Napping tops Lawrence’s list of “to do” things right after retiring, followed by campaigning for Barack Obama (whom she has endorsed) and reading the paper over a morning cup of coffee. 

During her tenure as assistant superintendent and superinten-dent of different school districts, Lawrence said she has sat through 600 board meetings.  

After taking over Berkeley Unified in the midst of a financial crisis in 2001, she spent six years trying to balance the district’s staggering budget. 

“Looking back, there have been some really good things I am proud of,” she said. “Such as bringing stability to the organization and defeating the lawsuit from Pacific Legal Foundation that threatened our integration program.” 

Lawrence was also responsible for creating more student-centered schools with the Ulysses model. 

“I think I brought calm and focus and a clear vision of what’s important for children,” she said. 

Described at times as “unresponsive” and “elusive,” Lawrence has been criticized by various community organizations and union representatives for not closing the student achievement gap, considered by many as the most critical problem in the state right now. 

“I certainly want Bill to continue the development of stronger curriculum and teacher training,” she said, referring to her successor. “The news from the governor makes us have to switch our focus from the classroom to the checkbook, but we have to keep fighting. I want to see the expansion of the pre-schools—I wasn’t able to get that finished. I have confidence in Bill; he’s younger than me, but he’s a seasoned administrator.” 

Huyett, who joins the district on Feb. 4, will also have to deal with the relocation of the district’s headquarters from the seismically unsafe Old City Hall to West Campus, which is scheduled to take place within a year. 

“What I won’t miss about my office is the cold when the radiator doesn’t work, the toilets that don’t flush and the plaster that’s peeling from the walls,” said Lawrence, smiling. 

She said she regrets not being able to oversee the completion of the new classrooms for Berkeley High School. The school was recently placed on the National Register as a Historic District. 

The campus’ historic status and the fact that the district has been sued over the environmental impact report for the South of Bancroft master plan—which proposes to demolish the Old Gym and the warm-water pool housed inside it and build classrooms—poses a big problem for the district. 

“We need that building so that the teachers can get some relief,” she said. “Berkeley is the best and worst of the democratic process, but a truly amazing place.” 

Huyett, 57, admits that some of the issues he faces as the new superintendent will be a challenge. 

“But I look forward to it,” he said. “Berkeley has so much support for public education ... It gets out there and talks about its programs. And that’s what piqued my interest. People that work in this district are passionate.” 

At first glance Huyett might remind you of Mr. Chips, the popular schoolteacher at Brookfield, the fictional boys’ boarding school. However, underneath his cheerful demeanor lies a quiet determination. 

He talks about facilitating programs that will help close the achievement gap, something he has done successfully at Lodi, his former district. 

“But there is a big ‘but’ before it,” he says. “Every school district is different. I have to learn about it before suggesting anything specific. There is an immediacy with looking into the proposed budget cuts but that will not keep me from visiting the classrooms and meeting people.” 

Moving to a district three times smaller than Lodi could also be challenging for Huyett, but he describes it as a plus. 

“Small schools improve student situations,” he said, adding that he had worked in smaller districts such as Dixon, which was half the size of Berkeley. 

“At Lodi, I am really most proud of academic achievement. The API scores have gone up 125 points, distinguished schools have been named and many academic programs such as the pre-engineering and health care are in place.” 

Huyett will perhaps be best remembered in Lodi for building 12 new schools, including a high school. 

As he walked into Lawr-ence’s office before joining her for the board meeting, he spoke about his love for Berkeley. 

“It’s perfect for me,” he said. “I love movies and the theater, and restaurants. When I am not working or at home with my family and my two labs, Cossie (after Cosmopolitan Girl) and Kallie, that’s where I want to be.” 


Photograph by Mark Coplan. 

Superintendent Michele Lawrence presides over her last school board meeting Wednesday.