Berkeley school district board discusses distance learning, budget cuts, 2020-21 school year

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The Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, board started planning for potential budget cuts and the 2020-21 school year, as well as reviewing current distance learning data, at its virtual meeting Wednesday.

The board unanimously passed five COVID-19 action items, as well a recommendation for Berkeley Schools Excellence Program and Berkeley Educator Recruitment and Retention funds for 2020-21. It also discussed budget updates, insights from the virtual town hall held April 29 and modifications to summer learning, as well as updates on feedback and participation from students.

“What we know very definitely is that schools will continue to be impacted by COVID-19 in 2020-2021,” said BUSD Superintendent Brent Stephens at the meeting. “It is simply not the case right now, on the basis of what we know, that schools will resume to something called ‘normal’ for next year.”

Based on a report released by the California Department of Education’s Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, or FCMAT, on Wednesday, Stephens said the district may have to anticipate an additional $4-6 million in budget cuts. Prior to the report, the budget advisory committees had only been preparing for up to $2 million in cuts.

FCMAT is now counseling school districts to prepare for a best-case scenario of 2% in budget reductions to a worst-case scenario of 10%.

“A -2% reduction would represent approximately a $4 million cut to general funds in the coming year. This is all very alarming; we are trying now to react to this news,” Stephens said at the meeting. “Reductions of this magnitude, I have to point out, would be very deep and very painful for BUSD.”

One of the five approved COVID-19 action items directs BUSD staff to identify budgeting strategies in case of further reductions in state revenue for the 2020-21 school year.

The board also reviewed data concerning student participation in distance learning for weeks two and three of remote instruction. It showed that, across the district, reports of students with no participation decreased from 22% in week two to 17% in week three. BUSD is currently in week five.

Stephens said he is optimistic that participation will continue to increase. According to the data, certain populations are showing higher rates of no participation, including students experiencing homelessness, Black students, students with Individualized Education Plans and those at a socioeconomic disadvantage.

“It is concerning that there are a number of student populations within BUSD that are participating at far lower rates than their classmates,” Stephens said at the meeting.We continue to track this very closely and we are actively engaged with our school communities to make improvements in these regards.”

Taylor Rudman is a schools and communities reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @TaylorRudman.