Berkeley teachers, supporters rally at school district board meeting

Brianna Luna/Staff

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On Wednesday, about 400 teachers, students and community members rallied before the Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, board meeting for a contract campaign led by the Berkeley Federation of Teachers and the Berkeley Council of Classified Employees.

The ralliers began at 6 p.m. and stood at the corner of the board chambers. Participants and spectators lined up along University Avenue and Bonar Street, playing music, dancing and waving signs as cars drove by and honked in support.

“Our two biggest proposals on the table are teacher compensation and extra support for our special education model,” said Janine Waddell, the vice president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers and a teacher at Washington Elementary School. “The goal was to show that we can bring large amounts of people to show how much we care about this and that we can rally together, that we have the community behind us.”

People continued to chant and stand at the corner of the board chambers for about an hour before marching into the chambers with the same energy they had shown throughout the rally.

“It was an overwhelming experience to have so many supporters show up for the same cause,” said Cragmont Elementary School inclusion specialist Alexa Asturias in an email. “We convened to make our concerns heard: we cannot support the students the way we could, or should, or want to right now.”

The BUSD board meeting promptly began with President Beatriz Leyva-Cutler welcoming the group before the board quickly moved through approving motions and reporting on closed session.

Soon after was the anticipated public comment portion of the meeting in which speakers shared their grievances about the conditions of Berkeley’s education system. 

“Last year, BUSD experienced as a mass exodus of special education teachers. We started the school year with nine special ed vacancies, and I’ve watched dedicated colleagues flee this position and this district, and the crisis level of turnover is demoralizing, and it’s detrimental to our students and our school communities,” said Malcolm X Elementary School student support staff member Lila Wilkinson.

Other speakers shared similar experiences and asked the BUSD board for cost-of-living compensation, funding for class materials, caseload caps for better working conditions with students and relief from the increasing number of initial assessments.

After public comment, the board moved on to the remainder of its agenda, including updates on adult education programs, approval for 2020 ballot measures and bond planning.

The board unanimously voted for all three BUSD March primary ballot measures — a maintenance tax, a facilities bond and a teacher compensation tax.

“The board voted unanimously to support a measure for teacher compensation … and we see this as one of the solutions to really being able to meet the compensation needs,” Waddell said.

Thao Nguyen is a schools and communites reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @tnguyen_dc.