Renewal of special tax to benefit Berkeley school district planned for 2016 ballot

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At its Wednesday meeting, the Berkeley Unified School District Board of Education heard updates on the planning process for the renewal of a special tax — scheduled to go on the ballot in November 2016 — to fund the district’s key education programs.

Natasha Beery, director of the Berkeley Schools Excellence Program, or BSEP, presented the timeline of the BSEP measure planning to the board. A planning group is focusing on reviewing current measure status, identifying priority areas that the program will fund and planning the public-engagement process prior to the vote.

BSEP was first created in 1986 to support the district’s class size reduction effort, arts and music programs, libraries, technology and school discretionary funds. It was renewed with substantial voter support in 1994, 2004 and 2006.

The current BSEP special tax, which will expire in 2017, provided the district with a total of $25 million from 2014-15 and funds about 20 percent of the district’s budget.

According to Beery, BSEP funds grow primarily through built-in increases based on the cost-of-living adjustment, which has been at 1 percent for the past few years. District expenses, however, have grown much more because of enrollment growth and higher compensation for teachers.

BSEP is a property tax that currently taxes commercial properties at a higher rate than residential properties. Because of possible changes in tax rules, however, setting the commercial tax rate higher than the residential tax rate may no longer be an option.

Christine Staples, president of the Berkeley Parent-Teacher Association and parent of a Berkeley High School student, said there is concern about how voters will feel about having to pay more. But she thinks the increase is needed to make up for the loss in revenue and to educate more students.

“BSEP is so vital to Berkeley public schools that we frankly couldn’t survive without it,” Staples said. “Asking for more money would simply make the difference for what we need.”

The BSEP planning group is scheduled to report to the school board again Sept. 30 with a review of the measure’s performance. In August, the group will begin building awareness in the community by holding seminars and workshops and conducting public polls in October.

Contact Tianyi Dong at [email protected].