Counselors Hit Hard by School District Cuts

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday June 04, 2009 - 07:00:00 AM

Teachers, parents and students packed the City Council chambers Wednesday to ask the Berkeley Board of Education to save high school counseling positions threatened by budget cuts. 

The board unanimously approved district Superintendent Bill Huyett’s proposed budget reductions, which address the $4.9 million deficit Berkeley Unified School District is facing in 2009-10 in light of the state budget passed by the Legislature in February. Huyett based his recommendations on advice from his Budget Advisory Committee, which consists of educators and community members. 

The district hopes to save $2.9 million with staff and program cuts, including layoffs for 21 teachers and counselors, and with $1.1 million in cuts from categorical funds. 

The budget also uses the $800,000 the district received in Individuals with Disabilities Education Act stimulus funds to help close the deficit. 

The proposal does not take into consideration the additional $4 million gap created by Gov. Arnold Schwarz-enegger’s subsequent revision of the state budget following the failure of the May 19 special election ballot measures. Huyett told the Daily Planet after the meeting that he plans to present recommendations for a second round of reductions at the June 10 School Board meeting. 

“We are obligated to put out a budget that lines up with the one passed in February,” Huyett said of the current proposal. “The state Office of Education has not given us direction on what to do about the May revision. Those cuts have not been accounted for.” 

The superintendent said he was hopeful that the first allocation of $2.4 million in state stabilization federal stimulus money—which the district has yet to receive—will help the school district in these troubling times. 

“U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has expressed support for California,” Huyett said. “California is an important state for the Obama administration. Duncan has acknowledged that California has high standards.” 

Huyett said the district’s plan was to hold on to the stimulus money until it had a better picture of the final budget and then act accordingly. 

The board is scheduled to approve the final budget for the new school year on June 24. 

In addition to the layoffs, the district is implementing a freeze on new hires, travel, and purchase of any equipment valued above $500. At least 72 custodians, bus drivers and clerks are being laid off and nutrition services are being slashed as well. The district also hopes to save $250,000 once it builds a new shelter in West Berkeley to keep its fleet of school buses. The district currently pays AC Transit about $40,000 every month to park the vehicles at a rented space on Sixth Street when the vehicles are not in use. 

Categorical funds for some programs are being reduced or cut altogether, including the Arts and Music Block Grant, programs for gifted and talented students, and improvements and deferred maintenance for schools and libraries. 

At least four Berkeley High School counselors and one part-time counselor at Berkeley Technology Academy—the only counselor at the school—have received pink slips because of cuts to the district’s General Fund. 

Berkeley Federation of Teachers President Cathy Campbell said that in addition to the four on the list proposed by Huyett, one more Berkeley High counselor had been laid off, reducing the total number of counselors at the high school by half. 

At the meeting, Dwayne Byndloss, a counselor at Community Partnerships Academy, one of the small schools at Berkeley High, said that counselors, along with teachers, provide support to all students, especially those from low socioeconomic backgrounds. 

“Teachers and counselors function as a team,” he said. “If you cut counselors and teachers, there will be more referrals and suspensions.” 

Another counselor warned the School Board, that with homicide rates in Oakland and Richmond rising, and crime “pouring” into Berkeley, the role of counselors was becoming even more important by the day. 

“We have a lot more students facing obstacles in life in the small schools than at the big schools,” said Annie Johnston, a teacher at Community Partnerships Academy. “We’d like you to figure out some other places to make the cuts.” 

Ray Cagan, lead teacher for the Arts and Humanities Academy, a small school, said counselors are the heart of his school’s program. 

“I went to Berkeley High at a time when any one counselor had 900 students, and I never saw my counselor in the four years I was there,” he said. “I was able to deal with it and make it through Berkeley High because my family had resources. Counselors help students with their college plans and give them one-on-one time whether or not they have resources at home. They bring equity to schools.” 

B-Tech counselor Amber Lester and Berkeley High counselor Teri Goodman reminded the board of the many critical services counselors provide to students—ranging from writing hundreds of letters of recommendation to crisis- and peer-intervention to monitoring whether students are meeting college entrance requirements. Lester said that at B-tech, many students found her office to be a safe place where they could find respite from all “the crazy things going on in the world.” 

Goodman said that, at Berkeley High, counselors had helped to develop a college-going culture by taking 10th graders on a tour of Bay Area colleges. 

At B-Tech, Lester along with other educators at the school, helped create portfolios for a group of 11 students, helping at least five of them to get accepted at colleges during a tour of black colleges last month. 

Although Lester was laid off this month, Campbell said there was a chance the district might bring her back in the future, albeit with reduced hours.  

Huyett said he agreed with the comments made at the meeting, but that district officials had been forced to make reductions to balance the budget. 

“California is low on counselors,” he said. “[Saving counselors] came up as a high priority, and I am sure it will remain a high priority.” 

Board Director Shirley Issel urged the board to investigate other avenues where reductions could be made. 

“I can think of other places to cut,” said Issel, a mental health worker. “I would rather see a reduction in safety officers than counselors. Nobody wants to cut anything anyhow.” 

Board Vice President Karen Hemphill asked the district to bring back all the counselors if possible, saying that apart from instilling a college-bound culture, counselors also kept the suspension rate down at Berkeley High. 

“There were virtually zero expulsion hearings this year. That’s a first in my three years on the board,” she said, attributing the shift to prevention work by counselors. “There were a lot more expulsions in my first two years on the board, so it’s like ‘where are they?’” 

Board President Nancy Riddle said that although Berkeley Unified was in better shape than some other school districts, it had not yet been able to rescind all the pink slips sent out to teachers and classified employees earlier this year.