Budget Woes Shadowed School District for Much of Year

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Wednesday January 07, 2009 - 06:25:00 PM

Although the Berkeley Unified School District spent the better part of 2008 bracing for state budget cuts, there were tidings of comfort and joy amid all the gloom and doom, giving way to sporadic bursts of celebration in classrooms, schoolyards and even the steps of the state capitol. 

While the district prepares for what educators are warning could be mid-year slashes to public school funds, as proposed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in his January budget to balance California’s faltering economy, it is also taking pride in a successful first year under a new superintendent, higher test scores and revamping district facilities that were in need of repair. 



Berkeley High teachers showed the district they meant business when they turned up at a school board meeting on Jan. 16 to complain about the space crunch at the high school, which had forced them to conduct classes in portables, share classrooms and, like nomads, push their carts from one site to another in the absence of a permanent space to hang their charts or give their lessons.  

The district approved funds that paid for six new portables on the softball field, which are now occupied by students and teachers returning from Christmas vacation this week, and announced plans to create four new classrooms through remodeling, including a shared space with Berkeley Community Media. According to district officials, the proposed demolition of the Old Gym on campus, scheduled to take place in 2011, and the subsequent construction of a new building in its place as part of the South of Bancroft Master Plan, would add at least 15 new classrooms, giving teachers at Berkeley High the much needed space to teach without interruption.  

A report prepared by the school district warned that the space problem is only likely to get worse in the years to come since enrollment will keep growing until 2011. 

January also saw The National Register of Historic Places grant the Berkeley High campus historic district status, a feat made possible due to the efforts by Friends Protecting Berkeley’s Resources, a local group led by Berkeley resident Marie Bowman. 

Friends sued the school district in March 2007 for what they charged was an inadequate environmental impact report on the demolition of the gymnasium and warm water pool inside it but reached a settlement with the district almost a year later, after the two sides agreed on a charrette to discuss the adaptive reuse of the two structures. 

The city is currently working with Berkeley Unified on a plan to relocate the warm pool, and a third public workshop to comment on a draft Citywide Pools Master Plan is in the cards for Jan. 24 at the James Kenney Community Center. 

The first signs of the governor’s proposed budget cuts to education also started making the rounds in January, paving the way for tougher times, pink slips and frequent trips to lobby legislators in Sacramento. 



Berkeley Unified got a new superintendent in February, one who made it a priority to say hello to and mingle with community members before every school board meeting this year, no matter how pressing the agenda before him was. 

When Bill Huyett replaced former superintendent Michele Lawrence on Feb. 4, all eyes were on him to address the looming school budget crisis and close the achievement gap. Huyett worked with parents, teachers and the community to understand the problems, lunging into action from day one. 

He led a contingent to Sacramento later in the month, vowing to fight the cuts. 

On Feb. 19, the Planet reported that the Berkeley Board of Education was investigating Willard Middle School Vice Principal Margaret Lowry for allegedly attempting to arrange a drug sting involving two special education students within the school’s premises.  

During the time Lowry was placed on administrative leave pending investigation, several other parents came forward with complaints against Lowry involving their children, shedding light on the district’s complaint process, which had left families frustrated by the lack of response, follow-up or resolution of their concerns. 

The State Department of Education announced in February that Berkeley Unified had failed to meet the federal No Child Left Behind goals when it did not meet the 95 percent participation criterion for local education agencies in their third year of Program Improvement for 2007. 

Under the governor’s proposed im-provement plans, Berkeley Unified was asked to amend its current education plan. 



The Berkeley High School Girls Basketball team won the North Coast Section Division I Championship for the second year in a row on March 1 at the Oracle Arena, after defeating Deer Valley High School of Antioch by a score of 62-45.  

The Planet reported at the beginning of March that Lowry had been reassigned from her position at Willard to a special assignment with Berkeley Unified School District central staff for the remainder of the school year. Thomas Orput, vice principal of the Berkeley Adult School, was called in to take over to replace her at Willard. 

In an interview with the Planet, Huyett said that the district would investigate complaints made by parents against Lowry and work toward some kind of a resolution. The Planet reported on March 7 that the district’s two week-long investigation of Lowry had come to an end. 

Berkeley Board of Education President John Selawsky said that although the district had investigated Lowry for “heavy-handed use of authority and cutting corners on due process,” the investigation had concluded that she had not put any child in harm’s way and that the allegations of her running a sting operation were inaccurate. 

Selawsky added that Lowry might be working to set up summer programs under her new assignment, but it was unlikely that she would be working with children. 

“We want to reassure the public and parents that we are taking the allegations against her very seriously,” he said.  

The district also saw an increase in student enrollment in March, with the number of kindergarten assignments at 660, almost 100 more than the year before. 

Although district officials couldn’t provide a specific reason for the hike in admissions, some parents attributed it to the rising cost of tuition fees in private schools. 

Berkeley High’s International Baccalaureate program was approved by the International Baccalaureate Organization in March. Based out of Geneva, Switzerland, the organization has programs in 2,145 schools in 125 countries, including seven Bay Area schools.  

The four-year interdisciplinary curriculum, which began with the ninth-grade in 2006, focuses on global culture, history, artistic expression, and political and economic systems. It now consists of two years, ninth and tenth grades.  

Berkeley Unified received a setback on March 16 when its student assignment system was once again challenged by Pacific Legal Foundation when the Sacramento-based right-wing public interest litigation firm appealed an April 2007 court decision which had ruled in favor of the district.  

The foundation sued Berkeley Unified for violating California’s Prop. 209 by racially discriminating among students with placements at elementary schools and at programs at Berkeley High in October 2006, but an Alameda County Superior Court judge ruled that the district’s student assignment system and integration system were fair and legal.  



Berkeley PTAs united against the state education budget cuts in April and turned out to be the largest contingent at the “Flunk the Budget” California State PTA rally in Sacramento, where they lobbied legislators to increase revenue instead of taking away money from the state education budget. 

Around the same time Berkeley Unified announced that it had been able to bring back almost all of its “pink-slipped” classroom teachers, who had received possible layoff notices in face of the governor’s proposed budget cuts. 

The Berkeley Board of Education approved $1.4 million for Baker Vilar Architects to design the new gym and classroom building after the Old Gym gets demolished, as outlined in the South of Bancroft Master Plan. 



When U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents picked up a Berkeley family on May 6, during what federal authorities called routine targeted enforcement action, the incident sparked protest among local immigrant groups and advocates and prompted the Berkeley Unified School District to send out a telephone message advising parents not to panic, after rumors started circulating that ICE agents were rounding up students in Berkeley. 

ICE officials denied the allegations, explaining that searches at schools were treated with extremely high sensitivity. 

A few weeks later, Berkeley High Principal Jim Slemp organized a human chain around the school, rounding up 3,000 students in an act of solidarity with immigrants across the nation. Slemp promised to make Berkeley High a safe haven for everyone.  

More rallies to protest the ICE raids in Berkeley as well as all over the Bay Area took place over the next few months, with the most recent one taking place in front of the ICE office in San Francisco in November, when hundreds of students from schools and colleges demanded that sanctuary cities such as San Francisco and Berkeley be off limits when it came to arresting undocumented immigrants. 

On May 15, a Berkeley technology student was shot a few blocks from his school by one of his seniors, shocking the entire B-Tech community and leaving district officials to re-examine safety practices at the school. The district introduced more counselors for at-risk teens, among other intervention methods. 

Berkeley High turned out to be the largest group at a statewide rally in Sacramento during the third week of May to protest the budget cuts, a day after the governor released his May budget revisions, which contained significant changes to his January proposal, including a combination of spending reductions, revenue solutions and several creative financing mechanisms. 



Berkeley Unified officials started taking a closer look at rehabilitating West Campus in order to relocate its headquarters there from the seismically unsafe Old City Hall building at 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, after talking to neighbors, who criticized the district’s original plans to construct modulars on the grounds of the former Berkeley Adult School.  

If all goes according to plan, BUSD will move into the old red brick building on University Avenue and Bonar Street by 2010. 

The school district, partnering with the City of Berkeley and community activists launched the 2020 Vision for Berkeley’s Children and Youth in June, which aims to close the achievement gap in the city’s public schools and remove barriers to educational equity for African Americans and Latinos by 2020. 

The Berkeley Board of Education picked Curvy Derby as its preferred option for the Berkeley Unified School District’s East Campus field, but acknowledged that the district lacked the funds to build it.  



The Berkeley Board of Education approved a resolution to work with the City of Berkeley to relocate the warm water pool from the landmarked Old Gym to an appropriate location without naming West Campus as a preferred site.  

The first statewide report on high school dropout and graduation rates tracking individual students revealed a high dropout rate for African Americans and Latinos compared to other ethnic groups. Although dropout rate for students at Berkeley Unified School District (15.6 percent) were lower than the countywide (18.7 percent) and statewide (24.2 percent) rates, the dropout rate for Berkeley Technology Academy (59.3 percent) was more than three times the countywide rate and more than double the statewide rate.  

The Berkeley Board of Education gave Berkeley High the go-ahead to move forward with a five-year federal Smaller Learning Community grant that aims to expand small school programs, provide students with a personalized college prep education and work on closing the achievement gap. 



Kalpna Mistry, a global studies teacher at Berkeley International High School, died from a heart attack on Aug. 4 while on a Fulbright Scholarship to the Philippines. 

The results for California's 2008 Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) Program showed that a higher percentage of students in the Berkeley Unified School District scored proficient or above in reading, writing and mathematics as compared with the state results.  

The Berkeley High Jacket, the student-run newspaper, announced in August that it was under financial strain and might not be able to publish in the new school year. 

With the installation of 480 solar panels on its roof, Washington Elementary School became the first educational institution in Berkeley Unified to go solar. Funded by state and district money, the project serves as a model for other schools in Berkeley who want to turn solar in the future. 

The school district’s $8.7 million King Dining Commons also began and will serve—under the supervision of chef Ann Cooper—as King Middle School’s new cafeteria and the district’s central kitchen, preparing 3,000 hot lunches and 8,000 meals daily for hungry children at each of the city’s 16 public schools. 

The school board unanimously approved a schematic design for the $35 million South of Bancroft project, which would build about 55,000 square feet of new buildings and improve landscaping in the southern part of the Berkeley High School campus. 



At least 11 schools in the Berkeley Unified School District met their Academic Performance Index targets for 2008 according to the state’s 2007-08 Accountability Progress Report and 

four other Berkeley public schools saw their API scores rise but did not meet the target. 

Berkeley Unified received a API score of 760, up 14 points from its 2007 Base API score of 746, showing that the district was progressing toward the target of 800. 

The Berkeley Board of Education unanimously approved a plan to put the historic Hillside School at 1581 Le Roy Ave. up for sale. 

Built in 1925 after the original Hillside School on Virginia Street burned down in the 1923 Berkeley fire, the building is a split-level three-story wood-frame Tudor designed by Walter Ratcliff. The school closed down in 1983 due to declining enrollment. 

Its main building straddles a trace of the Hayward Fault, which makes it unsuitable for public use. 

The board also approved a $15 Million West Campus Rehab for BUSD Headquarters, granting its neighbors a major victory. 

California’s long overdue state budget was finally signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger leaving the Berkeley Unified School District’s budget virtually unchanged from last year, but forcing it to grapple with the rising cost of living. 

Under the new budget, the district is set to make cuts of $2.5 million, which leave the budget barely balanced and with a loss of almost $2.9 million in general revenue and program reductions. 



Gwen Martin, a third grade teacher at Jefferson Elementary School, resigned following allegations that she might have violated the separation of church and state by teaching creationism to her third-grade class. District officials decline to comment on the outcome of their investigation against Martin, explaining it was a personnel matter. 

The Berkeley Rep announced it had raised $6,000 at the world premiere of Yellowjackets to help the Berkeley High School student newspaper The Jacket stay afloat. 



Berkeley Unified felt threatened by the governor’s proposed mid-year budget cuts and prepared for the worst. 

Community activist and leader Beatrice Leyva-Cutler led the Berkeley Board of Education elections with 37 percent of the vote, with incumbent and board president John Selawsky coming in second at 30 percent.  

Board member Joaquin Rivera stepped down after serving for 12 years. 



Amid mixed reactions from parents and community members, the Berkeley High School Governance Council passed the BHS redesign plan that would put students on a new class schedule and incorporate an advisory curriculum into the school day. 

Berkeley’s Malcolm X Arts and Academics Magnet, an elementary school that integrates art and academics, receives the Title One Academic Achievement award for 2008-2009.