Gov. Arnold Schwarzenneger’s proposed $4.8 million budget cuts from state education funds dominated the conversation during a reception held for Berkeley’s new superintendent of schools Bill Huyett at the City Council chambers Wednesday.
Berkeley public school employees and community leaders met with Huyett to discuss issues ranging from the controversial warm water pool to student achievement.
Huyett, who also attended his first school board meeting as superintendent of the Berkeley Unified School District Wednesday, responded to questions from the community with confidence.
“The expectations are pretty high,” said school board president John Selawsky.
“But Bill’s a very experienced superintendent and he comes in with all the skills necessary to address the challenges of the school district, especially the achievement gap and human resources issues.”
Huyett was responsible for increasing district test scores as superintendent of the Lodi Unified School District. He also oversaw the creation of 12 new schools, including a high school, during his seven years with the district.
Some Berkeley parents said they were concerned about how Huyett would handle the challenge of the proposed budget cuts.
“I work with teen parents in the school district and these cuts would devastate their progress,” said Solange Gould, a Berkeley public school parent.
“We need a creative superintendent, especially someone who will make quality education his top priority,” said Judy Appel, member of Our Family Coalition. “Someone who would make sure that our kids are going to safe schools which respect all kinds of families.”
Appel recently worked on a district-wide task force to draft a policy to protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students and their families from discrimination and harassment in Berkeley Unified, which was approved by the school board in October.
Tim Donnelly, who represents classified employees in the district, said that relocating district staff from the Berkeley Unified headquarters at the Old City Hall at 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way to a seismically safe building should be a top priority for Huyett.
“The district has already studied the building for mold,” Donnelly said. “It’s making people sick ... employees are having respiratory problems. I would also like to see a more open and collaborative process than we had under the old superintendent.”
The district’s plans to relocate to West Campus is expected to take place within a year.
Huyett told the group he was thrilled to be in Berkeley.
“I just really jumped at the chance,” he said. “However, the district faces challenges in terms of the proposed budget cuts ... Coming as a superintendent now is the worst thing I could have pictured, but I am going to need your help in changing the governor’s plan. We have to do some terrible awful things we don’t want to do, it’s going to break our hearts, but we have to keep working together.”
According to Selawsky, the district could face cuts up to $3.5 million from the proposed cuts.
Warm water pool supporters wanted Huyett to speed up the transfer of the Milvia Street tennis courts, currently owned by the school, for a new pool site.
The city plans to relocate the warm water pool from the Berkeley High School Old Gym to the tennis courts. The project—estimated to cost around $15 million—plans to use funds approved from a bond measure which the City Council has yet to put on the November 2008 ballot.
“After he surpluses the land, we want him to donate the land to the City for the pool,” said warm water pool task force member JoAnn Cook.
Santiago Casal, of United in Action, said that his organization wanted to partner with Huyett in a “total community approach.”
“We are hoping that the new superintendent will bring a huge ray of sunshine with him with respect to achievement of African American and Latino students in Berkeley,” he told the Planet. “The situation is urgent. Addressing the failure of children in our schools requires the involvement of the entire community ... The district cannot do it alone, but they do need to do much more.”