Berkeley Unified School District hears possible tax to raise pay for teachers

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Berkeley voters could see a new special tax that aims to address the Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD’s, current teacher recruitment and retention “crisis” on the 2020 ballot.

BUSD board members discussed this proposal and its possibilities during the Sept. 4 board meeting. Natasha Beery, director of the Berkeley Schools Excellence Program, and BUSD Superintendent Brent Stephens introduced the district’s current financial status, where — in the last two years — the district has made $3.8 million of “painful” cuts. In order to make up for a lack of state funding, this proposed tax would work to raise salaries and benefits for teachers. If BUSD board members choose to pass the tax, Berkeley voters will see it on their March or November ballot.

“The proposed tax would provide the district with resources that would be used to increase compensation for BUSD teachers (and other essential staff),” Beery said in an email. “(As) much as they might like many other things about our schools, the fact is (that teachers) need to make economic decisions as well, and there is substantial competition for many of these positions.”

Dubbed the “Berkeley educator recruitment and retention tax,” Beery said the special tax would be modeled after similar measures already in effect in other local districts. To gauge voter support for the possible tax, the district conducted a poll in May, which showed that 81 percent of voters agreed that they are “proud of the extra taxes (they) pay for Berkeley public schools.”

The board also presented recent data that placed BUSD at number 16 in a salary and benefits ranking compared to 18 other Bay Area school districts. Currently, Berkeley educators’ salaries and benefits are $8,000 below the comparative district average and nearly $10,000 below the regional average.

The Berkeley Federation of Teachers, or BFT, is currently in contract negotiations with the district and is looking to come to an agreement with them on several issues, according to Matt Meyer, the BFT president. Compensation is always a major concern, but BFT is also “fighting” for special education teachers, case managers and maintainable workloads, Meyer said.

“Berkeley teacher salary and benefits are just not competing with surrounding districts — we are going to be last, or second-to-last in terms of compensation,” Meyer said. “We love our jobs and we love our students, but it’s getting really difficult for us to stay (in Berkeley).”

Contact Clara Rodas at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ClaraRodas10.