Page One

As BUSD Weighs Construction Bonds for Nov Ballot, Berkeley High Tops the List

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Wednesday March 03, 2010 - 08:02:00 PM

The Berkeley Board of Education is weighing recommendations for placing a new construction bond on the November ballot, with Berkeley High School topping the list of immediate priorities. 

The board has until June to make a final decision about whether to put a Prop. 39 bond in front of Berkeley voters, according to the district’s facilities manager Lew Jones, who presented a report from the Superintendent’s Facilities Committee to the school board Feb. 24. 

Jones said that the committee had held a number of meetings, at the end of which it had detailed an initial wish list for close to $400 million in bonds. 

When their suggestions were presented to the board, that list got whittled down to $206 million, Jones said. 

The district is planning to ask for a 55 percent approval rate, instead of two thirds, although both are allowed, he said. 

Berkeley Unified also hopes to simultaneously ask for renewal of the existing special maintenance tax. 

The board approved the hiring of a public opinion survey firm which will be calling Berkeley residents this month to get their opinion on the tax and bond proposals being considered. 

“We want to see if there is any support for this, depending on which the board will decide whether or not to put anything on the November ballot,” Jones said. “They may decide it’s a good idea or they may decide it’s not worth putting anything on the ballot at this time.” 

The poll results are expected to come before the board March 24 or April 13. 

However, Jones said that the time had come for another 10-year bond—the last one was passed in 2000—especially with regards to expediting projects at Berkeley High. 

This bond will cover construction costs in the district from 2011 to 2020. 

“It’s important to consider not delaying the work at Berkeley High,” Jones said. “But of course, the board still has to debate the issue. This is just the information gathering point.” 

The Berkeley High South of Bancroft project—which is in its first stage—is a proposal to tear down the seismically unsafe Old Gym which houses the warm water pool and replace it with an athletic facility and classrooms. 

“Berkeley High would be one of the more important ones,” Jones said. “Definitely one of the things that need to be done earlier.” 

A space crunch at Berkeley High has led teachers to hold classes in corridors, on the playgrounds and the steps of the Little Theater. 

The district currently has money to fund the first stage of the South of Bancroft Master Plan—building bleachers near the football fields—and the second phase—the demolition of the Old Gym—which is not expected to take place at least until June 2011. 

Jones said that bids were currently out for the bleacher building. 

“It’s a bit slow right now, the design review process at the state level is taking some time,” he said. 

The district hopes to fund the third phase of the project— the design and construction of the classroom building—from the new bond measure. 

Jones said that the district was trying its best to keep costs at a minimum for Berkeley voters. One of the constraints of a new bond is that taxes for homeowners cannot exceed $172.80 for every $100,000 of assessed value, he said. 

“We want to minimize the burden, so we are thinking of issuing interest deferred bonds,” he said. 

Other construction projects being considered include solar energy, seismic retrofits, program improvement, deferred maintenance and technological equipment upgrades all across the Berkeley public schools. 

Stephanie Allen and Eric Weaver of the Facilities Committee told the board that the new bond would ensure that Berkeley Unified maintains its status as “one of the safest districts.” 

“We are well prepared and we feel comfortable going out into the community and asking for their support,” Allen said. 

Board member Nancy Riddle advised that if the district ends up going ahead with all the projects, then “we have to make sure we maintain them.” 

Board Vice President Beatrice Leyva-Cutler urged the district to plan science labs for Berkeley Technological Academy, which doesn’t have any. 

Others underscored the importance of giving equal importance to the needs of all schools. Board President Karen Hemphill contrasted Willard Middle School with King Middle School.  

“King is so different in terms of facilities. We need to think of what we can change at Willard and Longfellow Middle Schools that will change the experience,” she said. Hemphill also said that the district should be thinking ahead in terms of updating its technology. 

“I saw Avatar and I am wondering if we are up to date on where technology will be in 10 years,” she said. “I am concerned we are only replacing computers and not thinking about what we want to see in terms of a 21 century classroom.”