Public Comment

Commentary: A Letter to the Berkeley Community

By William Huyett
Friday March 21, 2008

As your new superintendent I have enjoyed meeting many of you as I have gone to schools and attended events in my first month on the job. Unfortunately, I come to the district in the middle of a state budget crisis caused by insufficient revenue. 

In January Gov. Schwarzenegger proposed to cut public education by $4.8 billion. Although no budget has been passed, school districts are required to submit a balanced budget by June 30 based on the governor’s current proposal. This means a need to reduce the BUSD budget by $3.7 million from our planned 2008-09 budget.  

This week, you may hear the news that the district is giving notice to some certificated staff—teachers, administrators, and counselors—that we may not continue to employ them in 2008-09. Because 85-95 percent of California school district budget expenditures are personnel related, layoffs are almost inevitable for districts in the coming year. BUSD finds itself in this position. By law, we had to give notice of potential certificated layoffs before March 15. Our board took action to approve these possible layoffs at its March 12 meeting. Giving such notice is disruptive to teacher’s lives and to the students we serve, but is necessary, this year. I wish there was a more rational way to go about this process, but we have no other choice. 

There will be notices to non-certificated employees as well. These employees are governed by different laws, and any such notices will not be sent until late April or May. 

I want to assure you that myself as superintendent, the school board, and my staff are all committed to maintaining the class size ratios passed as a part of Measure A. These are district-wide averages of 20 students to 1 teacher in grades K-3, 26:1 in grades 4-5, and 28:1 in grades 7-12. Our thanks to Berkeley taxpayers for providing us with the funds to allow us to maintain these levels at a time where many other districts are raising class sizes. 

I have asked my staff to make a preliminary list of budget reductions, which form the basis of the certificated layoff notices. This list will be reviewed by a new committee I am forming called the Superintendent’s Budget Advisory Committee. This committee, comprised of half employees and half community members, will review the proposals and will make their own recommendations to me. I then will try to put the best ideas from each group forward when I submit my recommendation to the board in May. The board will make all final decisions and must pass a balanced budget by the end of June. 

As in any school layoff process we will notice more people than we will actually release from their jobs next year. As we find out more about employees who will be retiring, going on leave, or not returning next year the number of needed layoffs may decrease. Additionally, as we make decisions about which positions and programs will funded, some of the names can be removed from the list. 

Each school’s School Governance Committee (SGC) is responsible for deciding the budget at each school. The decisions they make will not be easy, as the governor has cut categorical funds (often the ones that go to schools) even more than the revenues that fund classroom teachers. SGC meetings are open to all and thoughtful input is always welcome. 

It is tremendously disheartening to be writing a letter concerning potential layoffs as one of my first communications to the school community. I am, however, hopeful that changes will be made in the state budget before it is passed.  

Recently 20 of us made our first trip to the capital to talk with members of the Education Coalition and legislators. More pressure will be exerted on the Legislature before we are through. Each of us can make our voice heard and campaign against these unprecedented cuts. PTAs and other organizations will be organizing letter-writing campaign and other actions—I urge you to participate in these activities.  

As we go through our decision-making process to align our budget with the governor’s proposal, we will keep you informed with letters like this. I hope that we can preserve as many of the dedicated professionals and great programs found in Berkeley schools as we make difficult decisions about the budget.  

We have a long road to travel together to get through this budget crisis brought on by the state’s fiscal shortfall. Please feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns. 


William Huyett is the Berkeley Unified School District’s new superintendent.