Berkeley School Board Candidates Face-Off in Debate

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Tuesday October 28, 2008 - 07:25:00 PM

With a week to go before the Nov. 4 elections, candidates running for the Berkeley Board of Education turned the spotlight on the achievement gap at a debate organized by the Berkeley PTA Council at Willard Middle School on Monday. 

Moderated by Margot Reed, PTA Council vice president, the 75 minute-long debate gave each candidate a minute each to answer a range of questions, including student achievement, the district’s student integration plan and special education. Another minute was allocated for rebuttals, but they were entirely absent during the course of the evening. 

About 50 parents—some accompanied by children working on their homework—sat next to teachers and administrators from the Berkeley Unified School District listening to candidates explain their position in Willard’s well-stocked library on Stuart Street. 

The candidates began by introducing themselves, going over their backgrounds, highlighting career achievements and pointing time and again to their commitment to Berkeley Unified—be it through past successes, tutoring, helping at risk youth or as community organizers. 

School board candidate Priscilla Myrick, a former chief financial officer with a record of tutoring students in classrooms, won the toss-up for the first question, which asked candidates to name the challenges they witnessed in the Berkeley public schools and what they would do to address them. 

Myrick promptly replied that as school board director, she would ensure that school resources were optimized to give the greatest benefit to “9,500 plus” students. 

“I would be looking at K-12 programs and making sure that money is spent appropriately,” she said, stressing that teacher retention was also very important. “We need to make sure that students don’t fall behind.” 

As she tackled other questions related to the achievement gap, Myrick also spoke about creating aggressive summer school programs which would bring students up to grade level by the next school year. 

School board candidate Toya Groves, who works with at risk teenagers at a Berkeley-based non-profit, pointed out that Latinos and African American students were some of the worst affected by the achievement gap. 

“We need to study the emotional and performance impact on African Americans and Latinos,” Groves said. “We need to create a comfort level for all parents from all backgrounds.” 

Responding to later questions about the achievement gap, Groves said it was crucial to implement an in-house suspension policy which would address the mental health of students. 

School Board President and incumbent John Selawsky warned that the district’s budget crisis was far from over and that the public schools faced a major challenge from a slumping state economy over the next two years or more. 

District officials have said that they are wary of possible mid-year cuts to the state budget by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger which could affect the Berkeley public schools adversely. 

“Tied to that is equity issues,” he said. “We are going to have to take account of our own funding. We are going to be squeezed by the state. Every district is going to be squeezed by the state. We have a lot of issues we have to deal with in the next few years.” 

He added that the district had tackled similar problems in the past by using parcel tax funds to ensure that music and arts programs in the district were able to survive in spite of a tight budget. 

Selawsky also made it clear by the end of the debate that he supported more electives for middle schoolers, which educators say give students a chance to cultivate interests in the creative arts instead of just becoming proficient in math, science and English, as mandated by federal and state standardized tests. 

After chanting the words “professional development” three times, Selawsky said that it was important to coach younger teachers if the district wanted to try out differentiated education in the future. 

Drawing on the 2020 Vision—a citywide effort initiated in June which aims to close the achievement gap—school board candidate Beatriz Leyva-Cutler said that it was important to understand the issues behind the achievement gap. 

“It’s not about just one problem but how we engage in all the different problems that affects our schools,” she said. “It’s affecting not just our schools but also our city.” 

Early childhood care and education are the key to solving a lot of problems behind the crisis in student achievement, Leyva-Cutler said. 

Candidates also expressed their opinion about registering out-of-district students, with the majority agreeing that awareness about legal transfers was necessary to address misconceptions about the issue. 

“It’s a Catch 22,” said Groves. “A lot of youth of color are coming from outside the district. A lot of economically disadvantaged families are being pushed out of Berkeley because they can’t afford to live here anymore but they are continuing to send students here. We need to maintain diversity, we need to maintain the transfer quota.” 

Selawsky said that contrary to common belief, the district did not have a massive number of out-of-district students. 

According to current information provided by district officials, Berkeley Unified has 550 out-of-district transfers, with 20 out-of district transfers registering this year, the majority of them children of Berkeley Unified employees and a couple who transferred through appeals to Alameda County. 

“There’s a lot of statutes that people are unaware of they can legally enroll in our schools,” Selwasky said. 

Leyva-Cutler pointed out that Berkeley Unified had issued a moratorium on out-of-district kindergarten registrations for the third year. 

District officials have said in the past that a lack of space in Berkeley’s elementary schools prevents them from relaxing this rule. 

Leyva-Cutler added that although it was important to keep a check on illegal transfers, it was important not to disrupt the continuity of an out-of-district transfer student’s education. 

“I think the issue is about illegal transfers,” Myrick said. “I think what people are asking about is people who are borrowing addresses, that’s something very difficult to detect. I think there’s an impression of it being large. People don’t know the facts and reasons behind the transfer.” 

Candidates also spoke about their plans to reach out to the LGBTQ, ethnic and racial minority families in the district in response to a question about how they would communicate district policies to these communities, something all candidates said still had a lot of room for improvement. 

“We have a parent outreach department and we have people who do outreach to different communities,” Selawsky said, adding that he had co-founded the taskforce with the district’s LGBTQ families on the district’s anti-harrasment policy. “That said, we do need more translators and more information on websites which is sometimes hard due to the lack of funding. There is a need and we will be doing more outreach.” 

Leyva-Cutler emphasized that parents needed to see for themselves what it is like to be involved in advocacy groups. 

Myrick said that although the district had taken some steps to disseminate information among minority families by hiring an outreach coordinator, she was disappointed that the school governance councils had not been consulted on the 2020 Vision. 

“I think the district is open to other suggestions to ensure that more needs to be done,” she said. 

Groves said that through her work with high risk teenagers, she had realized that the way to get parents to come to meetings was by celebrating their child’s success, however small it might be. 

“It saddens me that there are no parents representing the African American population here today,” she said, prompting the audience to look around and acknowledge the fact.