The City Council and the School District Play Fast and Loose with Public Funds in Berkeley

By Becky O'Malley
Monday October 24, 2011 - 10:51:00 PM

While no one’s paying much attention, a substantial part of the last remaining open space in flatlands Berkeley is being reconfigured by the Berkeley Unified School District in collusion with bureaucrats working for the City of Berkeley. There has been almost no meaningful public discussion either of the goals of planned lavish and well-funded building projects or of the schedule for carrying them out. 

Our colleagues at the Berkeleyside website have done an excellent job of tracking the inexcusable decision of BUSD to summarily close Berkeley High’s Old Gym because of—this just in—structural problems. This sudden move left a variety of student athletes, including the football team, in the lurch.  

There are a number of related problems with this situation. In the first place, the gym has been transparently subjected to “demolition by neglect”, BUSD’s favorite construction planning strategy. The imminent loss of the warm pool, a lifesaver for many disabled members of the larger community, is simply inexcusable—with any decent planning providing such a facility could be a money-maker for the school district and the city, as is Palo Alto’s warm pool. Needless to say, promised replacements are not materializing—but we’re not surprised, are we? 

That said, the bad condition of the Old Gym is also no surprise to any reader of the Planet or anyone who has had any connection with the high school in the last ten years or so. It would have been possible for a well-run district to arrange beforehand to replace its function with minimal impact on students, but that didn’t happen. Again, all together now, this time in French (which my daughters learned well from Mr. Dillingham at Berkeley High): Quelle surprise! 

Then there are those who might question the major end goal of this whole disruptive project, which is to build a bigger and better football stadium on the Berkeley High campus. Recent studies about traumatic brain injuries suffered by many football players is causing many to question whether sponsoring this dangerous sport through the public education system is appropriate. Of course, like many of us, I do know a young man, a family friend, whose participation in the team was the main reason he stayed in school long enough to graduate. But the question deserves the kind of open and frank public discussion which it hasn’t gotten. 

And this story, bad as it is, pales in comparison to what seems to be going on completely under the radar at the prime BUSD West Campus location. We copped to it accidentally in May, listening to the side chat in a Berkeley City Council budget workshop, and revealed it in an editorial. At the time, one primary concern was that the Maudelle Shirek Old City Hall was participating in the Demolition by Neglect program. Another was whether West Campus, far from the civic center, was the right location for City Council meetings.  

In our May editorial, we said: 

“West Campus is relatively far from the action, and would probably impede rather than facilitate citizen attendance at meetings—but perhaps that’s the rationale behind what appears to be the current plan. At their next meeting on May 17th, the council has the opportunity to start a frank and open discussion of their impending move and the fate of the Maudelle Shirek Building, and they should do so.” 

Oh sure. Again, quelle surprise, nothing happened, at least not in public.  

So last week West Berkeley business owner and activist Kristin Leimkuhler alerted us and her neighbors to what was supposed to be a cozy little conclave to talk about plans for West Campus. Steve Finacom (seemingly the only reporter in attendance) managed to get a full story from comments made by participants representing both civic entities—and it’s a mess. A lotta shuckin’ ‘n’ jivin’ goin’ on, but no answers, and meanwhile Old City Hall seems to have gotten dramatically unsafe.  

And did you notice? Berkeley’s had maybe 8 or 16 earthquakes in the last couple of days, depending on whom you ask. We could lose the whole Berkeley City Council at one fell swoop if the Big One came at the wrong time. On the other hand, the council meets so infrequently these days that the probability is not high that they’d be there when it happened. (But we do need to get BUSD employees, who are now there every day, into a safer office building.) 

Finally, finally, Councilpersons Arreguin and Worthington are asking what’s going on. They’re trying to put an item on the consent calendar for the council’s November 8 meeting asking for a full report in no less than 60 days on whatever plans are contemplated for a new council meeting place. That timing puts the report dangerously close to the group’s long winter holiday (they seem to be on holiday most weeks lately), so don’t expect the report to be presented any time before spring, 

And that’s IF the council approves the item, which they might not. These two councilmembers don’t get much respect from their colleagues, most of whom are much more comfortable with backroom deals than with open public process.  

The school board isn’t any better. Based on Steve’s report, it seems quite likely that someone in what passes for facilities planning in the BUSD hierarchy is counting on the City of Berkeley to contribute close to $1 million of the $2.1 million dollar cost of turning the West Campus cafeteria into a meeting room for both the school board and the council. At least one quoted project manager said that contracts will be let in February or March for construction in March, by which time it’s highly unlikely that the Berkeley City Council will even have gotten their report. 

No school board members bothered to attend the Tuesday night meeting at West Campus. I happened to run into one of them at the Tuesday Farmers’ Market and I asked him if he was planning to go. He intimated that this really wasn’t his issue, and sure enough he wasn’t there.  

A major part of the problem is the grip the bond industry and its clients, developers and construction unions, have gotten on the public process. Berkeley already has a great deal of empty office space which could easily house the BUSD bureaucracy, but it’s new construction which feeds bond companies and the rest of the building industry. The Berkeley City Council could meet in the lovely new Berkeley City College auditorium, or even bargain with UC to use any of its many large halls as a tradeoff for the public service subsidy the city provides for the university. Yes, yes, we know that there are some “jobs” in building projects, but even in a period of unemployment it would be better for public funds to go directly to existing classroom teachers than, in large part, into the pockets of the bond finance corporations. 

We’ve never come out against a bond issue in the nine years we’ve been running editorials in the Planet. We believe strongly that it’s the duty of citizens to pay the tab for government. But when we see such slipshod planning and such complete disregard for public opinion on the part of both of the bodies charged with spending public money in the public interest, we understand why the swimming pool measure failed. 

We predict more voter rejection of similar measures down the line if this situation continues. Berkeley deserves—and should demand—better.