Berkeley school district faces cuts if November tax initiative fails

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The fate of Berkeley Unified School District’s economic situation lies in the hands of voters in this November’s election.

To prevent trigger cuts and distribute funds to public schools and universities across the state, Proposition 30 — Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax initiative — proposes temporary tax increases on Californians with an annual income more than $250,000 and is estimated to raise up to $6 billion annually in addition to state revenue.

According to an analysis of Prop. 30 by California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office, about $5.4 billion for K-14 education and $500 million for public universities will automatically be cut from the state budget if the measure does not pass.

Despite the grim forecast, Berkeley is more prepared than most districts in facing the budget situation because of parcel taxes that make up 25 percent of the district’s general operating budget.

School Board Director Karen Hemphill said the board anticipated possible cuts and began budgeting over the last few years, so Berkeley is in a “relatively strong financial situation.”

All school districts are required to keep 3 percent of their budget in reserve for fiscal security. When the district’s budget cuts were not quite as severe as expected, the district was left with another $8 million in addition to the required reserves, she said.

Still, Berkeley schools are already facing $3 to $4 million in structural deficits, with another $3 million at stake if the proposition does not pass, Hemphill said.

District spokesperson Mark Coplan said the school usually receives more than $6,000 per student from the state, based on average daily attendance. If Prop. 30 does not pass, about $400 to $450 per student will be cut from the district’s budget.

“(The reserves) will just help us delay those kinds of cuts,” Hemphill said. “If Prop. 30 does not pass, we can think about how we’re going to make those cuts in a thoughtful way instead of just cutting five, 10, 20 days from the school year.”

Unlike the school district, however, Revolutionary Education and Learning Movement middle and high schools — Berkeley’s first and only charter school, which receives its funding directly from the state — are already struggling with financial issues from deferrals in state funding.

Because REALM has only been operating for one year, the charter school does not have enough reserves to last this school year.

If Prop. 30 passes, REALM is estimated to receive a little more than $180,000 back in its budget, said the school’s principal, Victor Diaz.

“We’re going to do everything that we can to make sure it passes,” Diaz said. “It’s definitely needed for schools … Public schools have been taking hits year after year.”

However, Aaron McLear, senior advisor for the No on Prop. 30 campaign, said there is no guarantee the government will actually spend the money on education, since the money will go to the state’s general fund. The funds will be used to restore money that was cut from previous years, he said.

Even without Brown’s proposition, California already has the highest sales taxes and the second-highest income tax rates, said Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, one of the sponsors for the No on Prop. 30 campaign.

“What we really need to be talking about is our overall economy,” Vosburgh said. “Surveys have shown that the most popular program (in California) is education. It’s deceitful on (state officials’) part … they’re using education as a vehicle to get more money.”

Results from a poll conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California last week show about 52 percent of likely voters said they would vote yes on Prop. 30, whereas 40 percent said no and 8 percent are undecided.

“There will be some choices to make,” Hemphill said. “Berkeleyans value their schools.”

Daphne Chen covers city government. Contact her at [email protected]