Hundreds of Berkeley teachers protest, school board passes budget cuts

Kaho Otake/Staff

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During the Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, board meeting where the board was scheduled to finalize $2 million budget cuts for the 2019-20 school year, hundreds of teachers, classified staff and community members filled the room to support raising staff wages.

By the time the board meeting was set to start at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, the crowd had spilled out onto the patio. Every seat in the room was filled, and demonstrators were packed against the walls. A boy in his mother’s arms held a sign reading “Keep Education in Berkeley,” and chants such as “Pay our teachers. Pay our staff” rang out during the first portion of the meeting. The contract for BUSD teachers is going to expire June 30, and the teachers want to see wage increases going forward.

“I have wanted to tutor my students during after-school hours, but I am unable to, so this makes me feel like I have failed my students — but it also makes me feel like I am neglecting my own children when I don’t take care of them as well,” said Mayra Joseph, a teacher at Sylvia Mendez Elementary School who said she cannot afford to put her children into after-school programs.

Board directors thanked the demonstrators and expressed their support and understanding.

After weeks of back and forth between the school board and the office of the superintendent, board directors revisited some of most controversial cuts to finalize a $2 million decrease in the budget for the next fiscal year. The remaining recommendations concerned the termination of a mechanic position, an increase to the costs of transportation — though the exact strategy they plan to take in raising the cost has yet to be determined — and a reduction in additional travel expenditures.

The board approved raising up to $100,000 through an increase in school bus transportation fees, with exemptions for programs that serve mostly low-income students, and said it would work to account for in-zone versus out-of-zone travel. The superintendent’s staff will also return April 10 to finalize the exact dollar amount of the reduction as well as the calculation method.

The motion to cut a mechanic position, which would have saved the district $84,000, failed in a one-to-four vote. BUSD board Vice President Beatriz Leyva-Cutler said the next school year could be a “look-and-see” year to determine how well the staff handles its workload, especially with new electric buses coming in for the fall.

Although the board had already approved the additional travel reduction, Assistant Superintendent Pauline Follansbee said she believes there is a way to meet required travel and reduce an additional $25,000. The board approved the cut with the understanding that it is a goal that the district may not meet.

BUSD board Director Ty Alper asked the board to push for a $10,000 reduction in waste disposal fees for the next school year. The board also directed facility staff to look into increasing the rental fees for BUSD buildings.

In the end, the cuts to the general fund may not reach $2 million, but the board hopes they will be close.

“I just want to thank the staff for being creative, but unfortunately, I think that we might have to look at cuts again next year,” said BUSD Superintendent Donald Evans. “I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the way things are going … the next wave, if we should do this, will definitely hit the classrooms.”

Boyce Buchanan is the lead schools and communities reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @BuchananBoyce.