Teachers, Taxes, & Tennis Courts: Nov. 6 School Board Meeting

On Wednesday, November 6, the Berkeley School Board discussed three new measures directly affecting the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD). The meeting was the first review of various potential measures, on topics such as increased teacher pay, funding for construction projects, and the relocation of a BUSD elementary school. A follow-up discussion is scheduled for November 20. If the measures proceed past these reviews, they will be set to appear on the March 2020 ballot. 

The Educator Recruitment and Retention Measure was the first group to present at the meeting. This Meausre aims to better compensate BUSD teachers as well as to improve recruitment for hard-to-fill positions such as a job as a substitute. BUSD is one of the lowest paying districts in the Bay Area, with teacher compensation significantly below average, especially given the high cost of living. “We are lagging between eight and nine thousand dollars behind the regional average in this measure,” explained John Calise, the executive director of facilities for BUSD. Lack of adequate teacher pay has led to BUSD elementary, middle, and high schools struggling to fill job openings, especially special education program positions. 

The proposed measure aims to help combat this problem through the institution of a property tax. As of now, it is expected that the tax would last twelve years. Of the expected $10 million gathered by the tax, 95 percent would be used to pay teachers, and 5 percent would go to recruiting for  various other BUSD positions.

The plan received encouragement from the school board as a whole, although a few members pointed out flaws. School Board Director Judy Appel said that it bothered her that BUSD was forced to resort to district taxes in order to compensate its educators. Julie Sinai, another school board director, agreed with Appel. “Fully compensating our staff is unfortunately not something we can do with our budget. Schools across California are being forced to pay their educators with district taxes, effectively letting the state off the hook,” said Sinai. 

“Schools across California are being forced to pay their educators with district taxes, effectively letting the state off the hook.”

Julie Sinai, 

BUSD School Board Director

Both Appel and Sinai were in favor of the tax being in effect for 8 rather than 12 years, arguing that it would lessen the weight on the district voters’ shoulders and push the state government to do more in compensating teachers. 

School Board President Beatriz Leyva-Cutler expressed concern that voters might not support a measure that raised their own property taxes. “Nothing can be certain about the future of this measure: what would the response be for voters?” said Leyva-Cutler. 

Estella Hemp, a senior at Berkeley High School (BHS) and the student representative on the school board, also pointed out that there were many loopholes in property taxes, an issue which meant that this district-wide tax measure might not be the best way to achieve this goal. “People get out of paying property taxes all the time through loopholes in the law,” said Hemp. 

  Ultimately, the measure boiled down to a matter of making the state, rather than the district, compensate its teachers. “The state needs to take responsibility, and the time for that is now,” Sinai said. 

The second act outlined at the meeting was a proposed bond measure to help  fund construction at BHS. Among the projects discussed were renovations to the C-Building to improve ventilation, construction of tennis courts for BHS atop the Milvia Street parking lot, and the addition of solar panels. All of these renovations have been requested by BHS in the past. “These are issues that I’ve heard students voicing since I began high school, and it’s great to see our voices represented,” said Hemp. 

The last measure proposed for the 2020 ballot was the renewal of an act which would continue to fund the maintenance of school facilities across BUSD. The school board also discussed how the renewal of this act would fund the installation of air purifiers, which are becoming increasingly necessary due to the annual fire season and increased severity of fire danger. 

The school board also discussed the relocation of Oxford Elementary School, a North Berkeley campus that currently sits on seismically unstable and landslide-prone land, which puts around 300 students in danger. The school board reviewed a design and construction plan for a new campus situated on Bonar Street. 

The move is projected to be completed by the start of the 2020 school year. While the relocation was intended to be temporary, it is now unclear what exactly will happen to the old campus. 

During the public comment section of the meeting, a group of BHS students demanded action from BUSD regarding sustainability. “We need the school board to support our changemaking,” said Zoe Creane, a junior and the commissioner of sustainability at BHS. “We need more transparency,” continued Creane. 

Director Appel agreed, calling for action herself. “It is our responsibility to teach our students how to preserve our world for their futures,” she said. It remains to be seen what the school board will do regarding these demands. 

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