Berkeley school district board looks at cuts for next school year, increasing charges for after-school busing

Boyce Buchanan/Staff

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The Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, Board preliminarily approved a number of cuts to the school district’s budget in its regular meeting Wednesday, as part of a larger effort to reduce spending by as much as $2 million for the next fiscal year.

While the board intends to decide upon its final budget at the next meeting March 13, it tentatively approved changing the funding source of two Berkeley High School counselors, meaning these positions will potentially be funded for only one additional year. The board also hesitantly agreed to refrain from filling the currently vacant director of programs position for the Educational Services Department — the office that develops school curricula and supports the professional development of BUSD staff.

Several parts of the superintendent’s recommendations for the budget remained contentious, however, and the board spent significant time addressing these controversial reductions, such as the increase in the cost of after-school transportation and the termination of a school bus mechanic position.

The question of increased transportation costs raised anguish in the community when BUSD sent a letter to parents announcing a change in busing prices. Board director Julie Sinai referenced this letter and apologized for the “shock” the announcement caused. It had originally notified 16 different after-school groups, including Berkeley Youth Alternatives and Edah, that they would have to pay a daily rate of $210 or $410 for bus service to raise $736,000 annually.

“I think that we put a lot of people on edge, including parents and family members, and so I just want to express some appreciation to their patience in going through this process,” Sinai said.

Transportation Manager Sheila Collier and Assistant Superintendent Pauline Follansbee presented new, lower rates that these groups would have to pay for after-school transportation. One proposition would increase the current daily rate to either $29 or $58 depending on the stop. An alternative plan would set a $51 or $100 daily rate.

Sinai also mentioned that she would like to look into finding a different financial model for school bus service that would either exclude or discount after-school programs that verifiably serve low-income children. She said these groups are “part of our 2020 vision fabric” and that they provide valuable social and emotional support to children in need.

The potential elimination of one of the mechanic positions was also of concern to some on the board. Student Director Arvin Hariri said he worries about overworking the staff, especially with the implementation of new electric buses. The cut would leave only one supervisor — a trained mechanic — in charge of operations, aided by two other mechanics. Community members have in the past expressed worry that the reduction of the mechanic position could result in safety concerns for students and staff.

“I just want to be clear — I’m not happy about losing a mechanic. You know my department took a lot of hits with this budget cuts, and if there’s a way that, you know, I don’t have to lose a mechanic, I’m all for it,” Collier said. “But we can make do with three mechanics, we can make do.”

Sinai and board Vice President Beatriz Leyva-Cutler asked the superintendent to look into the possibility of switching the funding for the mechanic to a one-time funding source, Measure H. This would preserve the position for an additional year to facilitate the planned implementation of new buses next school year.

Director Ty Alper also suggested further implementing parts of the BUSD sustainability plan to reduce costs in areas such as waste disposal and energy usage. Alper hopes that this move to greener practices could save up to $20,000 from the annual budget. The superintendent and his team have been asked to look more into this option.

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