Berkeley school board discusses financial woes, gardening program at regular meeting

Ben Klein/Staff

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The Gardening and Cooking Program, possible ballot measures and the Berkeley Unified School District’s financial woes were discussed at Wednesday’s regular meeting of the district’s board — its first meeting since the start of classes.

The meeting was sparsely attended, with only about five audience members. The board breezed through public comment and union comments without incident, but the meeting was not without its fair share of excitement — and worry.

The beginning of the meeting was spent discussing the success of the Gardening and Cooking Program, which Program Supervisor Jezra Thompson said has become “a model for a lot of other school districts.”

“We have a garden in every school,” Thompson said in a presentation. “We are the only school district in the entire country that has a gardening and cooking program that’s integrated into the district, districtwide. It’s pretty remarkable. … Last year, we provided over 5,000 gardening classes.”

From there, Natasha Beery, director of the Berkeley Schools Excellence Program, and Superintendent Brent Stephens presented on the financial state of the district in the lead-up to 2020. The district, they said, is facing considerable financial difficulties. Beery described the financial state of education in Berkeley as a “silent recession, with … flattening revenues and these rising costs.” Because of this, Beery said, $3.8 million has been cut from the district’s budget for 2018-20.

Salaries and benefits of staff in the district are also considerably lower than average. Among the 18 California school districts for which comparison numbers are available, Berkeley ranks 16th. The salaries and benefits of Berkeley educators are more than $8,000 below the comparative district average, and nearly $10,000 below the regional average.

Educator compensation and labor have been a major point of contention for districts across the Bay Area. Ranked directly below the city of Berkeley, Oakland saw a major educator strike in February. During the strike, Berkeley educators joined in solidarity, and many Berkeley educators said the two districts were facing similar problems.

Beery shared data from a survey indicating that the majority of Berkeley voters would support an increase in the maintenance tax for education in the district. She proposed that the board consider a special tax for the March or November ballot to help support education. At the same time, Beery cautioned that there is already a considerable tax burden on residents.

“We don’t want to take that support for granted,” Beery said. “There’s a significant tax burden on taxpayers in Berkeley. This is something that we really do need to pay attention to at the same time as being very grateful and aware that this is something that our community supports.”

Ben Klein is the lead schools and communities reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @BenKlein_dc‏.