Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) community members gathered on Wednesday, April 13 for a school board meeting. Topics of discussion ranged from the plan to close BUSD’s virtual academy, an online school option for BUSD students, to a presentation on takeaways from a community survey on budget priorities.
During the opportunity for public comment at the beginning of the meeting, there was an outpouring of concern over the board’s decision to close BUSD’s virtual academy. Over ten members of the community, including students, parents, and teachers at the virtual academy, expressed their desire to continue to have the option of attending school online.
Some parents explained that they lived in households with immunocompromised family members, and they felt unsafe with the risk of their children bringing COVID-19 home from school. Others stated that as single parents they felt they could not afford to get sick or for their children to get sick.
“The number one reason families choose virtual is for having a medically fragile family member or student,” virtual academy teacher Yvette Felarca said. “And the vast majority of families and teachers in our program are families and teachers of color who have already suffered far too much loss from [COVID-19]. … Keep the virtual academy and all the virtual teachers.”
Parents pointed out that if the virtual academy closed, they would have to choose between sending their children to in-person school or homeschooling them, an option that requires more involvement and participation from parents.
The board did not respond to these comments. During a presentation later on, however, the virtual academy and its five teaching positions were included in the list of potential reductions to next year’s budget, totalling five hundred thousand dollars.
In addition to the virtual academy, the BUSD community also expressed their thoughts on California Senate Bill 1479, which continues state funding and support for COVID-19 testing in schools.
Many commenters approved of this bill and supported the board’s decision to write a letter in support of the bill to the California legislature. Some people, however, shared that they felt this testing was an invasion of personal autonomy.
Board Director Ana Vasudeo responded to these comments, saying that she was glad to hear support and emphasizing the importance of COVID-19 testing in being able to keep schools open. At the end of the meeting, the board approved a motion to send their letter of support to the California legislature.
During the meeting, the board received several presentations, the first of which was made by Assistant Superintendent Pauline Follansbee and Superintendent Brent Stephens. They updated the board and the community on the budget for next year, although the budget will not be finalized until June.
After receiving community responses to a survey assessing budget priorities, Folansbee and Stephens had taken these priorities into account when considering what items to fund for next year.
Later in the meeting, Associate Superintendent Rubén Aurelio, with other district staff, presented the second stage of the Comprehensive Coordinated Early Intervening Services (CCEIS) plan for the board’s approval. This plan aims to address the district’s overrepresentation of certain groups, primarily African American and Latinx students, within special education through early intervention and prevention.
“BUSD has been identified by the California state department of education … as having a significant overrepresentation of certain cultural, ethnic, and racial groups in special education or other disciplinary systems for the 2021 school year,” President Ka’Dijah Brown said. “CCEIS’s purpose is to improve academic outcomes for the identified groups … and hopefully decrease the overrepresentation of those identified groups.”
After a long discussion, the board unanimously approved the measurable outcomes proposed by the presentation, along with $324,000 in funding.
The next presentation was a review of the 2020-21 annual financial audit from Assistant Superintendent Pauline Follansbee, Charles Robly, the external auditor, and Isaiah Roter, a member of the audit committee.
Roter explained that in past audits there have been no findings, meaning that the auditors have found no discrepancies or weaknesses in the district’s accounting. In this audit, however, there was one finding.
The singular finding had to do with the district’s self-insurance fund; there was a discrepancy between what had been determined as the claims reserve, or total liability, and what actuarial studies had identified it to be. Roter explained that the audit committee believes that this finding is “more in the nature of a judgment call rather than an error.”
Roter emphasized the positive results of the audit, explaining that the district received an “unmodified” or “clean” opinion from the auditor, which he said is “the highest assurance the auditing profession provides.”
Roter went on to point out that last year the district received COVID-19 related funding from many different sources, with each having specific requirements for how the money could be used.
“The auditor reviewed every one of those sources and found complete compliance with every single item,” Roter said. “That’s a tremendous accomplishment in a very difficult year.”