Budget Cuts Damage Dwindling Funds

On March 13, 2019, the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) School Board voted to cut $2 million from the $157 million budget, although most of the decisions were made at earlier meetings.

One of the most heavily discussed issues that came up at the meeting was teacher salaries. Many teachers are forced to live in cities far from Berkeley in order to afford housing or work a second job. During the meeting, School Board Vice President Beatriz Leyva-Cutler said it is “critical to compensate our teachers and workforce so they can sustain their careers in Berkeley and continue to work in Berkeley Unified. Our employees should not be worried about living paycheck to paycheck.”

Victor Aguilera, who teaches Global History and Theory of Knowledge at Berkeley High School (BHS), felt he is in a relatively good position compared to other teachers. He lives in a rent-controlled apartment by himself, with no kids. For teachers who are not as fortunate, it is more difficult. Despite the slight advantages he does have, Aguilera said, “I still suffer from anxiety, even as a person who makes enough. The fact that [the anxiety] is carrying over to our jobs, that it is taking away from the teaching experience, the learning experience, the students that we teach, we need all the support we can get.”

The Berkeley Federation of Teachers has asked for a raise for teachers, and the board has entered into negotiations with the teachers’ union.

The board believes the state severely under-pays teachers and education as a whole is “criminally” underfunded, according to school board director Ty Alper, but there is not much the board can do, “I wish that the state fully funded public education so that districts like ours did not have to make painful budget reductions. Given that we had to make these cuts in order to maintain fiscal stability, I am satisfied with our decision-making process,” Alper said.

Board Director Julie Sinai added that “The Board made every effort to keep the cuts away from the classroom.” Nevertheless, many teachers feel that until they get higher salaries, keeping classrooms from being impacted will not be possible. “As teachers, we don’t just stop our responsibilities when the bell rings,” said Aguilera. “So if I am worrying about rent or food, that carries through. It takes away time from designing quality lessons, getting back to work on time, just general classroom mood, which affects student behavior,” he continued.

As for other decisions that were made at the meeting, the $2 million in budget cuts came from removing specialty positions at the district office, lowering transportation costs across BUSD, and moving the $300,000 cost of Universal Ninth (U9) grade out of the General Fund. Two counselor positions, worth $200,000, now only have funding for one more year, BHS Principal Erin Schweng expressed her dismay at the uncertainty of guidance counselor positions. “I wish there was a way to permanently protect our guidance counselor positions. It’s disheartening to keep having to advocate for these important positions each year,” said Schweng.

The board also voted 4-1 to keep an $84,000 mechanic position needed to maintain the school bus fleet. The U9 cost was able to be transferred from the general budget to the Berkeley Schools Excellence Program (BSEP) because “The goals of the program align with the purpose of BSEP funding,” Sinai explained. BSEP is a supplemental property tax that funds 20 percent of the BUSD budget. There are particular parameters of things BSEP can pay for, and U9 met these requirements.

Another topic discussed at the meeting was charging after-school programs for transportation of students to the programs from BUSD schools. Charles Burress, BUSD’s Public Information Officer, explained: “At the March 13 meeting, the Board members who participated in the vote endorsed a proposal to assess fees that would raise up to $100,000, but they did not reach a decision on the formula to be used to determine how much each organization would pay.”

Although there were hard decisions to make regarding the budget, they were able to retain the family engagement program and homeless outreach program and Sinai is encouraging staff to ensure that the board is implementing evidence-based practices in providing support to the families in greatest need. The board will finalize the full 2019-20 school year budget at the end of June.

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