Teachers urge Berkeley Unified School District board to raise employee wages

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At the Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, board’s regular Wednesday meeting, teachers urged the board to raise BUSD employees’ wages and the budget for special education.

Members of both the Berkeley Federation of Teachers and the Berkeley Council of Classified Employees spoke during public comment in front of audience members holding signs that read, “Living wages for BUSD employees.”

Shannon Erby, who teaches at Berkeley High School, described herself as a “veteran teacher.” Along with other speakers, Erby said that despite her passion for her job, she can no longer afford it. Erby said she has begun teaching Saturday school for extra money and is considering driving for Lyft, adding that her yearly 10 percent increases in rent outpaced her annual zero to 3 percent salary increases.

“Sometimes I have to ask, ‘Is teaching worth it?’ ” Erby said. “Of course teaching is worth it — I’m good at it, and I love it. But then I look at my bills and my visa statement, and I know that as much as I love it, I can’t afford it.”

During the meeting, the board received an update on BUSD’s special education curriculum and budget. Jan Hamilton, the executive director of special education, presented her department’s goals for the year.

Among other initiatives, Hamilton said the special education program is trying to build more “in-house capacity” by training behavior-intervention specialists. The district has already trained the first cohort of 10 in-house instructional assistants, who are estimated to save the board more than $300,000 a year through decreased reliance on outside agencies.

The board also reviewed the special education budget for the 2018-19 school year. Unlike in other areas of the BUSD budget, the board is not looking at the special education budget for “cuts,” but rather for “cost containment,” according to board President Josh Daniels.

Interim assistant superintendent of business services Pauline Follansbee gave a secondary presentation on the special education budget for the 2018-19 school year so far.

“What we’ve found over the years is that we overspend on nonpublic schools, nonpublic agencies, settlements (in special education),” Follansbee said.

Follansbee’s presentation showed that special education was already over budget, a fact that board Vice President Judy Appel called “sobering.”

The board also commented on the disproportionate representation of Black students in the special education program.

“The biggest problem we have in special ed is disproportionality,” said board member Karen Hemphill. “27 percent of our African American students are receiving special education. … I feel like it’s the outsourcing of the responsibility of some of the students that are out of the comfort zone of our staff to teach.”

The board also approved a new sustainability plan for BUSD and passed the board’s intent to revoke Realm Charter School’s charter. The intent to revoke began because the school, which is in the process of moving locations, is currently operating outside of Alameda County.

Alexandra Stassinopoulos covers schools and communities. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @AE_Stass.