On Wednesday, May 4, Berkeley Unified School District’s (BUSD) School Board met to discuss growing class sizes, wages among teachers, and the Berkeley Schools Excellence Program’s (BSEP) budget.
After acknowledging Asian American and Pacific Islander History Month, the board opened up the microphone for public comment, with nine members of the webinar sharing their thoughts.
Lindsay Nofelt, a Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) member and parent, was first to speak, requesting changes on the BSEP budget ballot to increase funding for theater, dance, and visual arts programs to better foster the socio-emotional development of elementary school students.
“We shouldn’t be dependent on parent fundraising capabilities to fund the arts,” Nofelt said, explaining that relying on parent-raised money is a dangerous proposition in years of rapid inflation and decreasing enrollment, and is a way for wealth inequalities to materialize in arts programs.
Forest Borie, a teacher at Longfellow Middle School, presented an argument in favor of hiring a permanent substitute teacher assigned to a specific school, who could familiarize themselves with the students and be ready to step in when they were needed.
Cielo Rios, a parent and member of the PTA at Emerson Elementary School, wanted the district to reevaluate where their construction money was placed, having noticed both three million dollars in funds being given to an electrical repairs company and no changes resulting from their hiring.
Mati Tieblum criticized the district for their vagueness on where their money was spent. “The silence is deafening, and I hope it isn’t telling,” they said, thinking that BUSD could be hiding something. “It is hard to rationalize the decisions [the district makes].”
A common issue of the debate was the teaching conditions in BUSD. Shiksa Modi, an inclusion specialist and teacher, was concerned about their ability to live sustainably in Berkeley on their salary.
Modi wanted Berkeley to be a place where teachers lived and not just work, arguing that teachers are not given enough money to be members of the Berkeley community. They said that those forced to live outside Berkeley are often tired before their workday from a long commute.
Mia Parsons, a third grade teacher, said that teachers are asked to do too much in regards to the burdens they have to carry, and that the system feels exploitative.
Jovel Queirolo, a STEM teacher, was drawn to the district for its commitments to social justice, but criticized them for their lack of proper salary. Teaching is not an option for many first-generation prospective teachers, Queiro said, meaning that teaching in the STEM fields especially is a white-domininated, privileged field, leading to a lack of BIPOC children pursuing STEM majors in college. “If BUSD teacher’s salaries are not competitive, BUSD is doing a disservice to BIPOC students in the district,” Quierolo said.
Alex Day and Zia Manekin-Hrdy, both teachers, also commented on the increasing class size, saying that it was becoming harder and harder for teachers to see their students as individuals and help them improve their skills.
During the committee comments section, the board reminded viewers that the district is in a deficit spending moment, and has to make difficult decisions regarding expenditures. Superintendent Brent Stephens also made a statement acknowledging the difficulty BUSD has had in getting federal COVID-19 guidance, and that clarity from the government does not appear forthcoming.
The one action item reviewed by the board was a presentation by Kathy Fleming, director of local resources of BSEP. She presented the annual plans for the BSEP budget, highlighting that there are not many changes to the budget that BSEP is making this year. However, slight increases are planned for the funding of the BUSD library program, a literacy coach, more technology in classrooms, and stipends for K to 8 teachers.
She plans for an auditing of measures taken in the 2020-21 school year to better understand the path the funds are taking and to set targets for budget reduction.
Fleming warned that budgetary reduction is likely to come in the 2023-24 school year, trying to prevent the need to levy extra taxes on the city. She also touched on the need for a comprehensive evaluation of BSEP, noting both its prohibitive cost and its benefits of introspection and renewal. An expansion of their evaluation measures is planned for the future, with next steps being a more data-focused analysis.
After Fleming’s presentation, Director Ka’Dijah Brown voiced her approval of the project, and offered the board’s continued support of the plans. Other board members clarified that the funding BSEP puts aside for “counselors” was for academic counselors, not mental health counselors, but that the board allocates funds for mental health services in BUSD.
These relatively unchanged budget plans were then approved by the board.