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Proposed Budget Cuts Theaten School Programs

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday January 25, 2008

Two weeks after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed slashing K-12 funding as part of his proposed state budget cuts, Berkeley public school officials announced Wednesday that it was time to get on the bus and head for Sacramento. 

Superintendent Michele Lawr-ence warned at the school board meeting Wednesday that if the proposed cuts took place, the district would issue layoff notices to six or seven counselors and some pre-school staff in the Berkeley public schools. 

She added that after-school programs would also be in jeopardy. 

“Because most of K-12 funding comes from the state, our school district will be hurt,” Lawrence said. 

“If we did not have the parcel tax funds we would be doing many more layoffs.” 

A few districts, including Berkeley, get substantial local funding (around $20 million) from the Berkeley Schools Enrichment Program (Measure A) which is almost one-third of the General Fund. 

Calling the situation “troubling,” Berkeley Board of Education President John Selawsky told the Planet that California public schools could not afford further cuts. 

“We are working with so much uncertainty, so much can change,” he said. “We won’t know until the governor releases his May budget. But if the cuts are made, then the Berkeley public schools could lose anything between $2 to $2.5 million. One obvious place would be to freeze hiring, which means everyone is working more.” 

The governor proposes to cut $400 million this year—which Lawrence said would have minimal impact on Berkeley—and $4.4 billion in 2008-09, which meant $700 less for each of the approximately 6.3 million public school students in the state, including Berkeley. 

“At this point it’s not a matter of how we handle it or make the cuts, but how we can stop the action on the part of the governor,” said district spokesperson Mark Coplan, “The message has to be that California education cannot afford a single cut. It’s really ironic because 2008 was supposed to be the year of education reform.” 

County superintendent Sheila Jordan told the Planet that mid-year cuts were unacceptable. 

“We will get ready for layoffs but none of us will run decent schools,” she said. “This unites every district in Alameda County. Even wealthy districts like Pleasonton will be hit. We are really hoping to convince the legislature to stop the cuts.” 

According to a presentation given to the board by Lawrence, the district expects enough resignations and retirements to avoid actual certificated layoffs. 

Compared to most other states, California spends much less on public education. Education Week recently gave the state a D+ for school funding. 

“We have moved from 42 in the nation to 46, below Mississippi,” Lawrence said. “We are spending $2,000 less per student than the national average. Californians need to be very angry about this. It’s morally wrong when we do not invest in the future of our children. The revenue of prisons and correctional facilities continue to grow, so why is the revenue of our public schools lagging behind?” 

According to Lawrence, the proposed cuts are equivalent to: 

• Shutting down every school across the state for one month 

• Laying off 107,000 teachers 

• Cutting more than $20,000 per classroom 

• Eliminating all music, art, and career technical education programs statewide, plus cuts beyond that. 

“Because most music and arts programs are funded by parcel-tax money, we will be able to sustain them,” Lawrence said. 

Cathy Campbell, president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, called the proposed cuts devastating. 

“It’s incumbent on all teachers, staff members and administrators to take action to stop these cuts,” she said. “The last time we faced a similar crisis in 2003-04 and 2005-06, Berkeley was part of a statewide effort where we went to Sacramento and rallied. The community needs to come together for this.”