Berkeley school district budget shortfall bigger than expected, fall protocols undetermined

BUSD meeting Berkeley Unified School District
Trish McDermott/Courtesy

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Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, staff has a lot of work ahead to determine how the school district can operate next year — both logistically and financially, as discussed during Wednesday’s board meeting.

After giving updates and discussing current BUSD programs, the board heard updates on logistics that may allow schools to reopen in the fall.

According to BUSD Superintendent Brent Stephens, before schools reopen, personal protective equipment needs to be made available to students and staff, universal COVID-19 testing needs to be established for staff every two to four weeks and isolation spaces on school campuses need to be provided for those showing symptoms, among other measures.

Many board directors also said distance learning curriculum needs to be improved and updated. According to Stephens, the school district also faces challenges with transportation to schools, as the capacity of its current busing system on the morning schedule will likely be cut to 20% to comply with social distancing guidelines.

To work on getting student, staff and parent input, Stephens suggested the school district adopt a student makeup week during its last week of classes, when no new material would be assigned and teachers’ office hour expectations would be suspended to allow staff time to collaborate on developing materials and plans for next year’s distance learning.

Matt Meyer, president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, also spoke at the meeting in support of this proposal.

“The task ahead is monumental and complex, and crucial information is still unavailable, but one thing is given,” Meyer said during the meeting. “The students will need to be taught and the need for professional development, planning and reflection has never been greater.”

The BUSD school board will be voting on whether to adopt the student makeup week at its next meeting May 27.

According to Stephens and Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Pauline Follansbee, the school district’s budget constraints will not make BUSD’s efforts for next year easy.

BUSD anticipated having to cut from its budget, but California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s May budget revision included larger cuts than expected, meaning the school district is looking at an estimated shortfall of $7 million.

The number of cuts needed may also grow, according to Stephens, as greater expenses may be required for the school district such as additional nursing staff, mental health support and developing curriculum when reopening.

To compensate for the economic loss, Stephens said the school district may be able to save certain costs during school closures including electricity, trash pickup and transportation. He added that other measures, such as closing unfilled positions, eliminating extended hours for staff, issuing a hiring freeze and putting forth the idea of staff furloughs are all being considered by the BUSD administration.

“At this point, we are only at the sort of conceptual stage of thinking about how we might be able to balance our budget,” Stephens said at the meeting. “We’ve got a lot of staff research, vetting and communication in front of us to determine a set of realistic and practicable strategies to be able to close this large a gap.”

The board will meet May 27 and will be holding a town hall to receive feedback from Spanish-speaking BUSD parents May 28.

Kate Finman is the executive news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @KateFinman_DC.