There will be no free seats at the Berkeley High School graduation this year.
An increase in graduation ceremony expenses—estimated to run in excess of $100,000 this year—left the school with no other choice but to start charging $10 for the first two tickets and $15 for every additional ticket.
Last year the school gave out the first two tickets for free and charged $5 for every additional ticket.
But this year the gloomy economic scenario coupled with budget cuts, layoffs and dwindling funds at Berkeley High made it impossible to give out free tickets and still stage a big ceremony. Berkeley High has held its graduation ceremonies at UC Berkeley’s Greek Theater for more than four decades.
“It’s going to be more expensive than last year,” Berkeley Unified School District spokesperson Mark Coplan said. “And Berkeley High doesn’t have enough in its budget. Costs are continuing to rise and the district is facing a $3 million deficit. Every year it’s the same question—‘can we afford to do it?’ The only way we could afford to do it at the Greek Theater is to charge for it.”
The school, Coplan said, was cutting back on all sorts of expenses to save money.
“They had the Winter Ball on campus this year instead of at an outside venue,” he said.
Coplan said the decision to introduce the new rates had been made by the senior student leadership at Berkeley High to uphold the age-old tradition of walking on the Greek Theater stage to receive their diplomas.
“Berkeley High School is not doing this—the seniors made a decision to do the graduation at the Greek Theater and charge for it,” he said, adding that students had explored the possibility of holding the event at the Community Theater or the high school’s football field.
Nichelle Pete, vice president of Berkeley High School’s Associated Student Body and member of the 2009 Graduation Committee, said she had voted for the ticket price increase.
“We have a tradition to hold our graduation at the Greek Theater, and I want to uphold that tradition,” said Pete, a graduating senior. “With all the various budget cuts, it came to our attention that we couldn’t afford to keep the ticket prices so low. At first we were willing to have the graduation in the Community Theater, but then we realized that not as many people would fit, and each student would have to be limited to bring a certain amount of people. We really didn’t think that the senior class families would like it if there was a limit.”
Pete attributed similar problems to the use of the football field.
“Finally we came to the conclusion that that we could spend money and raise ticket prices at the Greek or spend money and limit the students to the Community Theater,” she said.
Coplan said that $20 for the first two tickets was quite reasonable.
“It’s not like it’s an arm and a leg,” he said. “It’s $20 for the first two tickets, not $85. If parents have a problem paying it, I am sure Berkeley High will deal with it.”
However, not all parents feel they can afford the price hike.
The parent of a graduating senior who wanted to remain anonymous because she worked for the school district said she found it outrageous.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “We senior parents understand that the cost of things have gone up but this is outrageous. We are all going through a hard time right now, and to charge parents to see their children graduate is unbelievable. If I don’t have the money will they tell me I can’t see my daughter graduate?”
The parent said that she would like to see the high school charge exactly the same as last year.
“I understand that the economy is under major stress, but we also understand that every event at Berkeley High costs money and it just so happens that there isn’t enough to continue the way it was,” Pete explained. “I apologize to the families who cannot afford to buy all the tickets they may need—including me—but like any business we must stay logical and out of debt. This milestone will help underclassmen to see where they will need the most funding and how they will be able to make good decisions for the entire student body.”
Berkeley Board of Education Director John Selawsky backed the students’ decision.
“Yes, other high schools do it for much less but I think we should continue at the Greek Theater,” he said. “It’s a great venue and a great place to graduate—the stage of a world-renowned university. But that place is not cheap.”
Managed by UC Berkeley’s Cal Performances, the William Randolph Hearst Greek Theater on Gayley Road has hosted such dignitaries as President Theodore Roosevelt and the Dalai Lama, who will speak there again Saturday, April 25.
The amphitheater-like venue, with its views of the bay, can seat 8,500 people and is packed to the brim during Berkeley High graduation festivities.
Charley Locke, a junior at Berkeley High, said she believed parents should be able to watch their child’s graduation for free.
“A key element of public school is providing access to things like this for all families,” she said.
Calls to Berkeley High School Principal Jim Slemp and Vice Principal Vernon Walton for comment were not returned.
Iris Grace, parent of another senior, said she was a little disappointed with the news.
“It wasn’t so much about charging for the extra tickets,” she said. “We have been doing a lot to get our children through school. To hold us hostage like this is wrong. They did not ask parents before doing it. I would have like to have a say in it.”
Grace said she was alerted about the change in a senior activities packet sent to 12th graders in March.
“I heard that the Greek Theater was charging more money, but when you start doing the numbers on potential revenue from the ticket sales, you can’t see the theater charging that kind of money,” she said.
The notice from the school also said that students who have difficulty buying tickets could contact their counselor.
With at least 800 students graduating this year, the school is set to make about $16,000 from selling the first two tickets alone.
Cal Performances charges Berkeley High $19,109 for use of the Greek Theater, which includes $900 for the facility, $4,000 for event staff, $9,942 for UC police and other miscellaneous expenses, according to 2008 figures provided by management.
Berkeley High Parent, Teacher and Student Association President Mark van Krieken, suggested that, given the tough economic situation the school district was facing, the university, as part of being a “good neighbor” could decrease rental costs.
Douglas Warrick, general manager of Cal Performances, said UC Berkeley was already being a good neighbor by extending “family prices” to Berkeley High School that are usually available only to UC campuses.
Nine hundred dollars is the same amount Cal Performances charges for departmental graduation events at the Greek. For any other high school, Warrick said, it would be double the amount, and for popular music events, tens of thousands of dollars.
“Costs have only gone up 3 to 5 percent this year,” he said. “And that’s primarily because of recent negotiations with university employees about their cost of living. We are doing our part as good neighbors to work with Berkeley High to cut costs as much as possible.”
Warrick said that graduation performances by Berkeley High’s renowned jazz band require state-of-the-art equipment, which needs expert handling by special staff, adding to the expenses.
“Then there’s their rehearsal schedule, setting up sound and theatrical equipment and cleaning, which takes up a lot of time,” he said. “The costs really depend on how long they use the facility for.”
The university, Warrick said, had absolutely no say in ticket prices.
Van Krieken suggested that perhaps the high school could look at a sliding scale for the tickets.
“It’s a big event, everybody wants to bring their family,” he said. “But on the other hand, the high school is also in a tough spot.”
Hayden Plant, who will graduate this year, said he didn’t understand what all the fuss was about.
“It’s a very minor amount,” he said. “People should stop complaining. It’s not a big deal. I don’t know why it matters—Berkeley High graduation is a joke anyway.”
Those interested in helping with ticket prices can make a donation to the Berkeley High School graduation fund or buy extra tickets for those in need. For more information, contact the school at 644-6120.
This version of the story corrects an error published in the print edition, which misstated the year from which the figures for the Greek Theater were taken. The costs for Berkeley High's use of the theater are from 2008.