The Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) Board of Education recently announced plans for a new parcel tax that would be used to fund teachers. Since the state of California will not allocate more funds to school districts for teacher salaries, the School Board has suggested an alternative; on September 18, the School Board met to determine if they would enact a plan to tax the next Berkeley ballot to fund salary raises and the hiring of new teachers.
The tax could be essential to the livelihood of what is known as an excellent school district. “One of the main concerns is definitely our ability to recruit and retain teachers and classified staff,” said School Board Vice President Ty Alper. BUSD started this school year with numerous vacancies in various staff positions. “For some specialized positions like school psychologists, the district had to hire expensive contractors because there were no applicants,” said Matt Meyer, president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers (BFT). Many jobs are vacant because teachers cannot afford to live close to where they teach on their salaries. “Our ability to serve our students well is negatively impacted by long commutes, working second jobs, and
“One of the main concerns is definitely our ability to recruit and retain teachers and classified staff.”
Ty Alper, BUSD School Board Vice President
not being able to support our families,” said Meyer. “Additionally, it has become harder and harder to attract teachers to our district as other districts offer higher compensation,” he added.
The proposed tax is modelled after initiatives taken by other school districts that are able to offer higher compensation because they instituted similar measures long ago. “Albany and San Francisco both have parcel taxes that they can use for teachers [and other staff] salaries,” said Natasha Beery, director of the Berkeley Schools Excellence Program (BSEP) and BUSD community relations. “In fact, Alameda, Albany, Oakland, San Lorenzo, San Francisco, and West Contra Costa are among the districts that have done that in recent years, and I hear other districts are planning to do so in 2020,” Beery said.
Perhaps part of the reason BUSD is in this dilemma is the fact that Berkeley has a wealthier population than neighboring cities. “Some of our neighboring districts are also getting more dollars from the state budget [called “Concentration” funds] because they have higher numbers of low income and English learner students, and in some cases they are directing those funds towards [salaries],” said Beery.
Berkeley voters have been supportive of teachers in the past, and the polls “indicate that Berkeley voters understand that the state of California is not providing sufficient funding, that teachers and other educators are underpaid relative to other professionals, and that we need to be able to provide a competitive living wage to attract a stable and highly qualified workforce,” said Beery. If voters don’t go for it, the prospects are grim. The district has already made consistent cuts for the last two years. “No matter what we do locally, it is important that we keep pressure at the state level to adequately fund public education so that we can both pay our employees what they deserve, and ensure that we are providing the programs and services that our students need,” Beery continued.
BUSD may have to increase class sizes, something that neighboring districts have had to do when strapped for cash. “We haven’t done that in Berkeley because we are fortunate to have the special tax that funds BSEP, which provides smaller class sizes as well as our school libraries, music program, tutoring and other supports for students,” said Beery. BSEP funds can’t be reallocated to help with the compensation problem. According to Beery, “those dollars are directed to pay for specific programs and cannot be taken away by the state or used for other purposes.” BSEP was a tax passed by voters, so only time will tell if voters have the same mindset this time around.