School Board Approves Cuts to Programs to Address Budget Deficit

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday March 13, 2009 - 04:39:00 PM

The Berkeley Board of Education unanimously approved revisions to the school district’s 2008-09 budget Wednesday to offset this year’s $3.1 million shortfall. 

Berkeley Unified School District faces an $8 million budget deficit over the next two years. 

The district was able to meet the reductions in state funds for this year by instituting a freeze on new hires, conferences, travel and consulting expenses, and equipment purchases over $500—measures which added up to more than $1.5 million in savings. 

Cathy Campbell, president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, said the board was able to save at least $600,000 through the hiring freeze that was put into place last fall. 

Taking advantage of a recent bill signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger which allows school districts to redirect funds from 40 programs for any “educational purpose” over a five-year period ending July 1, 2013, the district transferred $2 million from its categorical funds to its general funds.  

The move resulted in cuts to art, music and technological programs, textbook purchases, building maintenance, and school discretionary funds, among others.  

The board also looked at recommendations made by district officials to address a $4.9 million deficit in 2009-10, which includes an additional $1.2 million cut in art, music and library programs next year. 

The board will vote on these recommendations at a later date. 

The school district also hopes to receive about $800,000 from federal stimulus money, which it will use to address the shortfall. 

“The stimulus may change things, but we have lobbied our legislators to release the funds as soon as possible,” district superintendent William Huyett said. “We have to plan as if Armageddon is coming our way.” 

A majority of the board members told Huyett that they were against increasing class size, even in these tough economic times. 

Calling the cuts a “downward spiral,” board member John Selawsky expressed concern about the loss of arts programs in the schools. 

Selawsky also criticized the potential layoff notices that were sent out earlier this week to 124 teachers, counselors and at least three administrators. 

“It’s nothing short of criminal to me,” he said. “We have always been underfunded in California, but this is the worst we have seen in decades. We are looking at two, at least three years—I am not sure we are going to be able to weather this. There are programs that we are going to eliminate completely that, in this climate, I am not sure we will ever get back.” 

According to Campbell, the list of possible layoffs included 46 teachers at Berkeley High School and three teachers at Berkeley Technology Academy (B-Tech), a continuation high school that admits a high number of at-risk students. 

“A lot of temporary teachers were released from B-Tech, and they don’t need to be given notices,” she said. “The sad part is, the vast majority of them are people of color.” 

Campbell said that the school was suffering from all the cuts, which will leave only 10 or 12 teachers to manage approximately 150 students. 

Elementary schools that received layoff notices included Berkeley Arts Magnet (nine), Rosa Parks (seven), Oxford (six), Thousand Oaks (six), Emerson (five), Washington (four), Jefferson (three) and Malcolm X (three). 

Cragmont, John Muir and LeConte elementaries received one layoff notice each. 

Additionally, seven district teachers on special assignments received pink slips. 

The list of layoffs more than doubled this year compared with 2008, when the approximately 55 layoff notices sent out to teachers were rescinded, Campbell said. 

“People who went through this last year and have received layoff notices again can’t believe they are going through this again,” she said. “They are upset, but a little numb. The ones who are experiencing this for the first time are surprised and demoralized. They are unsure what it means for them.” 

Huyett stressed that the district would be working round the clock to reduce the number of layoffs. The list of final layoffs is scheduled to go out in mid-May. 

“This has been like a rotten week,” said Huyett, who helped B-Tech principal Victor Diaz distribute the layoff notices Tuesday. “One principal told me that he had to give layoff notices to everyone he had hired in the last four years. These positions are not positions we can afford to lose. We are not flush with people who can do all the work. I am angry that I have worked so long to make public education better and now we are working to make it worse.”