School Board President Returns to Work Post Medical Leave

On Wednesday, August 17, Berkeley School Board President, Judy Appel, returned to work from medical leave due to a nearly fatal accident last spring. Her return coincides with the beginning of the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) school year. This means that Berkeley will start the year with a full school board, which acts as the voice of the public in educational affairs and manages BUSD’s policies, facilities, budget, and curriculum. 

Appel and her wife, Alison Bernstein, were hit by a car eight months ago as they crossed the street at the Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Stuart Street intersection, just blocks away from Berkeley Bowl. Both women sustained serious injuries; Appel suffered many fractures and her wife sustained a brain injury. The two were rushed to Highland Hospital.

School Board Vice President and Appel’s colleague, Ty Alper, explained how he missed her wisdom and experience. Appel’s first time as an elected member of the school board was in 2012. Appel’s experience and insights were also missed by her newly elected colleagues, according to Board Director Julie Sinai. Sinai explained how despite Appel’s absence, the board ultimately pulled together and accomplished the work they had in front of them. “I’m struck by her resilience and tenacity, but most of all her commitment to Berkeley’s students and families,” said Sinai. Alper added that the members of the school board “were first and foremost concerned for her recovery, and the recovery of her wife, Alison.” 

Although the school board was able to remain productive in Appel’s absence, functioning without the president was challenging. 

During Appel’s period of absence, the school board hired Dr. Brent Stephens as superintendent, approved the budget, launched an educator housing initiative which aims to provide housing to BUSD employees, and settled some of the BUSD’s union contracts.  

Although the school board was able to remain productive in Appel’s absence, functioning without the president was challenging. Sinai saw the largest pressing challenge as “not having the board president’s experience and participation in decision making” and added that “each board member brings their own perspectives and with one less person, that’s one less contribution to the discussions and deliberations.”

Now that Appel is back from medical leave, the first items of business from the school board, according to Sinai, are negotiations with teachers’ unions, goals for the new superintendent, the launch of a new three-year Local Control Accountability Plan which reshapes funding for schools, preparation for tax renewals, work on special education, and tackling racial disparities in the district. 

Appel plans to increase her involvement slowly, as she has not completely recovered from her injuries yet. 

Besides acting as the Berkeley School Board president, Appel is an LGBTQ+ advocate and the director of special projects at the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, which provides financial support to social justice organizations. She also is the former executive director of the Our Family Coalition, which advocates for LGBTQ+ rights. In addition, Appel served as a founding board member for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, which focuses on using resources to improve communities instead of on prisons and punishment. Alper sums up the sentiment of the school board in saying, “we have missed [Appel] a great deal, but we are thrilled that she is now back in action.”

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