Election Section

Why It Is Important To Vote NO on Measures H and I(Commentary)

By Peter Schorer
Saturday October 16, 2010 - 10:45:00 AM

In these two Measures, the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) is asking taxpayers to let it borrow a total of $260 million for various projects, only some of which are actually concerned with education. But let me state at the outset that the total that taxpayers will wind up paying if the Measures pass is not $260 million but over $610 million when the cost of debt service (interest, etc.) is taken into account. (See the BUSD's "Plan for School Maintenance and Reconstruction in the Coming Decade" (the so-called "Blue Book").) That's more than half a billion dollars. 

And what does the District propose to do with the money? Well, $50 million is for vaguely specified "maintenance" costs extending over a 10-year period (Measure H).The rest of the $260 million is for a few projects that can legitimately be said to be directly related to education, but an unknown number of millions are for sports-related expenses. 

One might ask, "But how can such expenses be justified when the graduation rate from Berkeley High is only x percent?" Unfortunately, one can't ask that because the District doesn't put this crucial, fundamental information on its web site. (berkeley.k12.ca.us). Why not? Could it possibly be because the graduation rates -- in particular for minorities -- are not impressive? A few years ago, I was told by a person in the know that the graduation rate for blacks was only 40%. Then, as a result of a "new way" of doing the numbers, it increased, in the space of a year, to around 60%. (The number for the state as a whole as of a couple of years ago was about 65%.) 

In any case, I think it is fair to say that the top priority for any bond money spent at Berkeley High should be aimed at increasing graduation rates. 

But the District, in its profound wisdom, finds it far more important to spend money on sports facilities, not to mention a variety of other non-education matters. Read the Sample Ballot for Measure I. You would think you were reading a description of a proposed Club Berkeley High. Let me quote just a few of the items. 

"Install, construct, renovate or rehabilitate site improvements, including pedestrian paths, sidewalks and walkways, exterior shade canopies and rain structures, outside gathering and eating areas, lawns, quads and courtyards, benches; landscape improvements... 

"Renovate, replace or construct physical education playgrounds and athletic fields and associated facilities, including all-weather tracks, natural or artificial turf fields, courts and stadiums, lighting, bleachers and rest rooms. Provide storage for physical education, athletic and grounds maintenance equipment." 

No cost estimates are given for these and most other items. Not even rough percentages of the total bond amount. The District is in effect saying, to us the voters, "Just give us the $210 million and -- trust us!" 

But history suggests that the voters would be ill-advised to do that.To take just one example: back in 2000, Berkeley voters passed Measure AA, a bond issue for $116.5 million which focused on building new classrooms at Berkeley High to replace the 26 that were destroyed by a fire in B Building. Only a few of the classrooms were built. Instead, over $10 million was budgeted for a new stadium building with locker rooms, a 3500 square foot training room, and offices for coaches and the athletic director. 

The sad truth is that the District cannot be trusted -- not even to spend money on sports facilities wisely. The noted architect Henrik Bull, who lives in Berkeley, studied some of the BUSD's plans. He found that the adaptive reuse of the Old Gymnasium was never seriously considered by the BUSD, despite the fact that the cost would be much less than the new Gymnasium planned by the BUSD. For details see articles and letters by this architect on berkeleydailyplanet.com. 

In a letter to the Daily Planet on 10/2/10, Bull quotes several proponents of Measure I who claim that "money...is needed to build a fifteen classroom building on Milvia Street..." Bull continues, "No mention is made of the new 13,000 square foot gymnasium that will be part of the same building....Is the BUSD trying to hide the expenditures for non academic use?" 

The inspiring new film, "Waiting for 'Superman' " describes some remarkably successful efforts at improving education for African American youth. Providing more sports facilities is definitely not part of the reason for the successes. 

On Nov. 2 we have a chance to send the BUSD a message: we don't trust you; we think that school bond money should be used for education. To send the BUSD that message, vote NO on Measures H and I.