Fee hikes at Berkeley Adult School raise concerns for seniors, persons with disabilities

In response to recent funding reductions, the Berkeley Adult School will increase class fees for the fall semester — an issue that has raised concerns regarding the future well-being of senior citizens and adults with disabilities.

For the fall semester, additional costs will be placed on what had been free classes just a few years prior. Along with reducing classes, the fee increase will go toward combating a $90,000 reduction in funding that the school receives from a block entitlement grant.

Prior to February 2009, the Berkeley Unified School District received varying amounts of funding every year depending on average daily attendance. But after February 2009, the district began receiving a set amount of funding from the grant that the superintendent and a budget advisory committee doled out to the district’s programs every year at his or her discretion, according to Burr Guthrie, the adult school principal.

According to district Superintendent Bill Huyett, the $90,000 reduction for the adult school came in response to a study done by a graduate student from the UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy which compared fees charged by surrounding adult education programs. The recommendation from this study was to raise fees for the Berkeley Adult School to match the market value of surrounding school districts, he said.

Guthrie said that because emphasis is placed on core classes to fulfill graduation requirements, technical career training and second language acquisition, other programs — such as those for senior citizens and adults with disabilities — are negatively impacted the most with reductions and increased costs.

Accordingly, Judy Turiel, vice chair of the Commission of Aging, said her concern stems from the possibility that further fee increases — especially at off-site locations — will lead to elimination of programs altogether, which would be detrimental to senior citizens.

Though cutting back on adult education is ultimately a school board decision, the commission has done what it can to advise the Berkeley City Council to consider otherwise, Turiel said.

“Every year, the principal looks at what classes are working and what aren’t, and (they) put programs out there that people attend,” Huyett said. “This happens every year, good budget or bad budget.”

However, these program reductions and consolidations have not been drastic so far, as no programs were cut this year, Huyett said.
During the council meeting Tuesday night, the commission asked to inform the Berkeley Unified School District Budget Committee that further cuts to the off-site learning of the adult school will “decimate” a program serving the community’s most “vulnerable seniors.”

“We were afraid that they were going to cut these courses, which would have really taken its toll,” said Ed Gold, chair of the Commission of Aging. “We’re actually very pleased with how minimal (the fee increase) is.”

Class fees are not standardized and vary from class to class based on interest, Guthrie said.

Though Guthrie said he believes the academic programs are still a bargain, he said the increase in fees may prohibit certain people from attending.

“In some cases, (enrollment) has gone down — areas that went down were programs with seniors or adults with disabilities on fixed income,” he said.

To remedy this situation, Guthrie said the adult school is looking into implementing vouchers for students most in need.

“We want to be an attractive program,” Huyett said. “If you raise your fees too much, yeah, you have people not attending or participating, but I think they are appropriate where they are now … We always want to make sure (fees) are reasonable and competitive.”