Someone at some civic event last week asked me if I’m voting for Measures H & I, the tax and bond measures designed to support the Berkeley public schools. The question was phrased in the form of an incorrect premise, “I know the Planet doesn’t make endorsements, but…”
That used to be true when we had a sizable staff of opinionated people and I was reluctant to speak for all of them, but now there’s no one here but us chickens, and we agree on most things political. Most news articles are now written by volunteers who disclose their opinions if any, and are free to write their own commentaries if they have more to say.
That said, what’s or who’s the Planet endorsing in this election? We hope to post endorsements and other election-related materials as printable PDFs next week, so that anyone who wants can print them out and distribute them. (We’ve reluctantly abandoned the practice of making PDFs of whole issues, because it’s a good bit of work to do without any guarantee that anyone will print them out, as the copy shop did before the Blue Meanies bullied them into stopping.) But here’s our instant review of candidate endorsements:
Democrats statewide. of course. Get out there and vote.
Be sure to vote no on phony Berkeley Measure R, greenwashing at its worst, funded by evil developers. And if you harbor any lingering doubts about where the slimebag factor resides in this contest, we've had four No on R signs stolen from our front lawn in just two days.
Who are these people? Were they raised by wolves? No, wolves have better manners.
On to Berkeley City Council choices: Jason Kingeter and Merrilie Mitchell as #1 and #2 in District One, you choose the order. No vote for Linda Maio—at council meetings she indicates by what she says that she knows better, but then votes wrong anyhow.
In District 4, Jesse Arreguin has been doing an outstanding job, really remarkable, for his downtown constituents and for the city as a whole.
Kriss Worthington has been for many years the conscience of the council, not to mention its brains, so of course Mayor Bates has fielded two candidates in an attempt to take him out in District 7—don’t be fooled by slick-talking opponents funded by development interests who boast that they’ll be able to solve all the city’s problems.
In District 8, Challengers Stewart Emmington Jones and Jacquelyn McCormick are excellent choices for the #1 and #2 slots. UC retiree incumbent Gordon Wozniak has been in the pocket of his former employer on almost every vote, paying little attention to the needs and wishes of residents. He’s also the only Berkeley councilmember who signed a scurrilous and defamatory ad funded by Middle East fanatics who were trying to destroy the Planet, which is reason enough to vote against him.
School board candidates are more difficult. Local bloggers at Berkeleyside.com have done a great public service by giving the candidates plenty of space to express themselves, and most sound qualified and sincere. After a lot of thought, we’ve decided to follow the recommendation of Berkeley High parent and recent District 5 council candidate Sophie Hahn and endorse Priscilla Myrick. Myrick seems to be unusually fiscally literate and detail-oriented, which are skills school boards always seem to lack. Just loving kids and supporting diversity aren’t enough any more—numbers count too. There don’t seem to be any terrible losers in the rest of the field, so choose your own favorites, and write to the Planet on their behalf if you want.
Which brings us to the sticky wicket where we started, the school funding measures. My old friend Larry Gordon, a CPA and parent of twin BUSD students, coaxed me into sitting down with Superintendent William Huyett, teachers’ union president Cathy Campbell and activist parent Eric Weaver to talk about why they really, really need more money. We agreed to leave Measure H, which provides maintenance funds, out of the discussion, since it seems to have no serious opposition, but I raised, politely, some of the various objections to Measure I, the bond measure, which have appeared in these pages and elsewhere.
The main one seems to be the loosey-goosey way the proceeds from previous bond measures have traditionally been used. New classrooms at Berkeley High were—perhaps promised is not quite accurate, but at least mentioned in Measure AA in 2000—and they never materialized, while other kinds of construction spending did. Critics have a valid point here, but in our meeting proponents assured me that it would surely be different this time, since the form of this bond provides for even more and better audits to make sure the money is spent correctly.
But there’s a bigger problem, to my way of thinking. In the many many years since I’ve been watching BUSD construction expenditures, I’ve seen many many bad decisions made, regardless of the source of funds. My own three kids suffered through insanely mismanaged earthquake retrofits at their various schools. Elementary school properties were sold off as public housing sites, a choice that is back to haunt the district this year—one of the specified needs which Measure I is supposed to fund is more elementary classrooms.
And as an environmentalist I have frequently deplored BUSD’s ill-advised reliance on new construction instead of rehabilitation and creative re-use. The latest mistake is their plan to demolish the old gymnasium on the Berkeley High Campus which houses the warm pool. Distinguished architect Henrik Bull has shown conclusively that it can be rehabilitated to save the pool and also provide needed classroom space with a much lower carbon footprint and probably at lower cost as well.
School superintendents—and I’ve seen a long string of them in my 35 plus years in Berkeley—seem to suffer from an Edifice Complex. They love to run big new building projects with public funds. Bill Huyett, trained as an engineer, a smart guy and a nice one to boot, seems to be no exception, unfortunately.
But is voting down school bonds the right way to protest dumb decision-making?
In looking for an answer to this question, I’ve relied on the advice of the in-house economics maven. He points out that there’s never been a better time to borrow money, if you’re ever going need to do it. Interest rates are at an all-time low and might be lower by the time the bonds are actually issued. And no one really denies that BUSD will need to do some sort of construction or reconstruction in the very near future.
Some critics suggest that Measure I should be voted down and replaced at the next election with a more narrowly drafted bond measure. But that timing is likely to miss the window of opportunity offered by the current economic situation.
Smart Keynesian economists—Paul Krugman is the current hero at our house, ably supported by his local fan Professor Brad DeLong—are insisting that more public spending is the best way to deal with the country’s economic woes, and that Obama’s timid stimulus spending is not nearly enough. Measure I makes it possible for Berkeley to do its part by providing construction jobs when they’re badly needed.
But it’s been shown time and again that rehabilitation of existing buildings provides many more jobs than new construction, and they’re usually jobs for local people. New construction, the kind BUSD seems to enjoy, uses concrete supported by lots of steel imported from China, while rehabbing existing buildings conserves resources like old-growth timber which was harvested decades ago.
Voting down bond issues is very tempting, but it’s not the right way to criticize bad policy decisions—it’s using a sledge hammer to drive a nail. The right way to affect policy should be through the elected officials who are supposed to make policy, even though all too often school board members have left much too much for staff members to decide on their own.
And so, with some trepidation, we’ll be voting for and endorsing a school bond issue one more time—but I expect in return that current and new board members will recognize that it’s high time to put environmental concerns back on the table.
Is it possible that some new school board members might be independent enough to take another look at the district’s building plans before it’s too late, before restorable buildings have been demolished? None of them has expressed any position on this topic to my knowledge, so I’d like to challenge them to do so.
I’ll strongly consider endorsing any candidate who has the courage to recognize that there are real and serious public criticisms about the way construction bonds have been used in the past, and proposes serious remedies for this perennial problem. Will any school board candidate agree to put restoring Berkeley High’s old gymnasium for the warm pool and new classrooms back on the board’s agenda if elected, just for starters? I’m waiting to hear from you all.