School Board Wants More Information on Equity Grants Before Redirecting Lab Funds

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday February 11, 2010 - 03:13:00 PM
Berkeley High School English teacher Susanna Bell (front left) and other school staffers ask for equity in education during the school board meeting Wednesday.
Riya Bhattacharjee
Berkeley High School English teacher Susanna Bell (front left) and other school staffers ask for equity in education during the school board meeting Wednesday.

The Berkeley Board of Education asked for more information from Berkeley High School Wednesday before weighing in on whether it should re-direct parcel tax funds from science labs toward equity grants. 

Students, teachers, parents and administrators packed the City Council Chambers for the board meeting, urging the board to save before- and after-school science labs, the most contentious part of the redesign plan submitted by Principal Jim Slemp and leaders of the School Governance Council. 

Other sections of the redesign—which seeks to close the achievement gap at the high school—include new bell schedules, professional development and advisory programs. 

Most speakers said they were concerned that reduced lab hours would lead to a lack of instructional time for Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate science classes. 

Emotions ran high, as student Dmitri Gaskin characterized the principal’s plan as “bringing the top down instead of bringing the bottom up.” Another student submitted more than 300 signatures for a petition to save the science labs. 

Berkeley Unified School District Superintendent Bill Huyett has responded to criticism for the proposal with a compromise plan, which keeps most of the current after- and before-school science labs intact, but discontinues the additional time for AP environmental science because the two-semester program apparently covers the amount of instructional time required by the College Board.  

However, members of the AP environmental science class vociferously defended their right to extra lab time, saying that it helped with real world, hands-on experience. 

“I don’t want to be viewed as an immature high school student, but if we can’t go out and touch the grass and see the squirrels and find out why Strawberry Creek runs so low, how can we learn?” asked AP environmental class student Sara Whitney. 

Claire Bloom, a scientist and a Berkeley High parent, said the district should evaluate more data before rushing to implement any changes. 

Other parents complained about the level of division and hostility in the community over the science lab issue, which board members said had polarized the community and led to “inflammatory conversations.” 

Huyett said that he encourages debate and discussion, but at the same time asks everyone to find common ground. 

“I have worked at places where people don’t care as much about education, but this shows that Berkeley cares,” he said. “I want you to know that in closing the achievement gap we look for high standards for all students. There is no intention to bring the top down to close the gap. A rising tide helps bring all boats to top level.” 

Former School Governance Council member Priscilla Myrick said that she had filed a Brown Act complaint with the Alameda County District Attorney’s office charging that the School Governance Council violated the “state’s open-meeting laws by deliberating in private, ignoring public notice requirements and violating the rights of the public to provide public comment when voting” on the high school redesign plan Dec. 8. 

A school board Policy Subcommittee is currently investigating complaints from parents regarding lack of transparency and non-compliance with federal, state and local guidelines at the SGC. 

Slemp, along with a group of Berkeley High small-school teachers, outlined proposals for the equity grants, which ranged from additional classes to various support programs. 

He underscored the importance of equity, starting the presentation with a recorded speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to honor Black History Month. 

“The system needs to change. Since we don’t have money for new resources, we must use our current resources to best meet the needs of our students,” Slemp said. 

Although the board did say much about the merits of individual proposals, it cautioned that under the current budget climate, there was a lot of uncertainty about whether money would be available for any purpose. 

Berkeley Unified is bracing for a $2.7 million deficit this year due to a “fantasy-land budget,” Huyett said, and expects worse news in 2011–12, when stimulus money comes to an end. 

Board member Nancy Riddle said she doubted whether most of the proposed grants would be eligible for receiving parcel tax funds. 

The bulk of that money goes toward class-size reductions. Expanded course offerings—such as extra lab time—and program support comes next. 

“We might need to use most of our parcel tax funds toward keeping our class sizes small,” said board president Karen Hemphill. 

The board recommended that the Berkeley Schools Excellence Project Planning and Oversight Committee examine what kind of equity grant proposals would qualify for parcel tax funds. 

Most board members said they were irritated that the board packet did not include either Slemp or Huyett’s proposal.  

“It was an omission—it wasn’t an intentional omission, but a mistake was made and we couldn’t really discuss any of the ideas,” Hemphill said after the meeting. 

Although the board didn’t specifically discuss the superintendent’s compromise, no one spoke out against it either. 

Huyett said that the district would work with the high school on the redesign plan and bring it back to the board for further action in April.