Berkeley school board discusses reopening, supporting Black students

BUSD meeting Berkeley Unified School District
Trish McDermott/Courtesy

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Although the Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, board meeting Wednesday had a packed agenda with various items, the topic of Black Lives Matter and supporting Black families continually resurfaced throughout the evening.

The board discussed three main items: a resolution in support of Black Lives Matter, proposed responses to the state’s cuts to the 2020-21 budget and plans for reopening schools in the fall.

The Black Lives Matter resolution calls for BUSD to sponsor a series of events to support the Black community next year, including a “Black Lives Matter at School” week and the renaming of two schools named after slave owners, Jefferson and Washington elementary schools.

The resolution spurred criticism from parents at Longfellow Middle School, who alleged the school, which predominantly enrolls students of color, has long been disadvantaged within BUSD.

“The statements, resolutions and emails are lovely platitudes,” said Longfellow parent Leanna Lewis at the meeting. “They ring really hollow when the lived experience of being Black in Berkeley is that Black lives don’t matter.”

The Black Lives Matter resolution was then passed with an amendment to focus on the “excellence, equity and opportunity gap” at Longfellow Middle School.

Board member Ka’Dijah Brown challenged the board to discuss excellence rather than simply equity.

“Excellence begins when we start calling out the inequalities and the blatant racism in our school district,” Brown claimed during the meeting. “Excellence begins when we stop criminalizing children by taking shifts to stop them in elementary school classrooms, encourage other kids to stay away from them and even call the police on our Black and Brown boys and girls.” 

The board later turned to discussion of the budget, as BUSD faces the loss of about $7.7 million in state funding. Superintendent Brent Stephens shared a three-tiered approach to budget cuts.

The tiers move in chronological order, with the first tier containing immediate cuts of $5.3 million, the second to be made mid-school year if necessary and the final, harsher set of cuts only to be made if the district’s financial situation continues to be “rocky,” according to Stephens.

The board also discussed plans for next year.

Stephens said there are still many unanswered questions, but reports and guidelines for reopening schools indicate that certain “common elements” will be necessary — including 6-foot social distancing, small stable bubble groups of about 12 students, face coverings, facilities cleaning, hand-washing and hand-sanitizing.

Conversations about preparing for next year, finalizing the budget and further supporting Black students will continue at following school board meetings, including the June 24 meeting.

Contact Clara Brownstein at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @clarabrownstein.