Bond Measure Seeking to Fund Local Schools Draws Criticism

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Although the two measures affecting the Berkeley Unified School District on next Tuesday's ballot both fund maintenance projects at local schools, one of them, Measure I, is drawing more criticism because of its scope and projected cost to city residents.

Measure I, which would give the district authorization to issue a $210 million bond to fund construction projects in the district, has drawn less support than Measure H, which imposes a parcel tax that would fund upkeep and maintenance of district buildings.

The bond measure, which requires a 55 percent approval rate to pass, would allow for the construction of a new gym at Berkeley High School, new classrooms and science labs at several school sites, seismic upgrades and the renovation of many facilities in the district.

In 1992 and 2000, Berkeley voters passed two similar bond measures - Measure A and Measure AA - both of which allowed the district to take out bonds of over $100 million each.

Several opponents of Measure I said some of the projects - like building a new gym for the high school - were also supposed to be funded by the older measures, so tax payers have already contributed enough.

"We paid for the (high school) classrooms to be rebuilt in Measure AA, and they did not build the classrooms," said Berkeley resident Marie Bowman, who is also a member of the Berkeleyans Against Soaring Taxes campaign, in an e-mail. "Should we pay for them again?"

Eric Weaver, co-chair of the Yes on Measures H & I campaign, said because Measure AA did not require the district to allocate $19 million of the bond to a specific project - the gym - it became clear that it would be more financially sound to build a new gym than to replace the old one.

Measure I, if approved by voters, would provide money specifically to build a new gym.

Berkeley High School Parent Liaison Irma Parker said much of the improvements she has seen in the schools over the past 20 years have been because of the financial support from both parcel taxes and bond measures.

"I remember when the rain would come - we would have to put a bucket on the floor in some of the elementary schools to catch the water from the roof," she said. "It was cold in the classrooms, windows were broken ... kids cannot learn like that."

If Measure I is passed, the district ensures each taxpayer's annual contribution will not exceed $172.80 for every $100,000 of assessed property value - the highest level city residents have ever previously paid for bonds.

Residents now pay approximately $160 a year for bonds, according to Lew Jones, BUSD director of facilities.

District Board of Education President Karen Hemphill said she does expect taxpayers to reach the promised tax cap.

The other district measure on the ballot, the parcel tax outlined in Measure H, is also a continuation of an older measure, the Berkeley Schools Facilities Safety and Maintenance Act of 2000, called Measure BB, and would fund day-to-day maintenance of playgrounds, classrooms and other facilities.

Measure H, which requires a two-thirds approval, would create a tax of 6.31 cents per square foot on residential buildings and 9.46 cents per square foot on commercial buildings that would go towards funding upkeep of buildings.

Hemphill said since school districts do not get money from the state to replace broken facilities, the district needs community support to keep equipment up to date and safe. Without this support, the district would have to use money from its general fund - like most other districts in the state - which provides money for the majority of budgeted district expenses.

"When you go to Richmond, go to Oakland, go to Vallejo, the schools are in the shape they are because ... it's kind of visible when you don't have (the parcel taxes) - schools do not look like places of learning," Hemphill said.

Mark Van Kriekan, vice president of the high school's Parent Teacher Student Association, called both measures a "necessary evil."

"It's a good cause even though people are often uncomfortable with increased taxes," Van Kriekan said.

Parker said while a well-maintained school does not dictate the quality of the education, the school environment has a big impact on the students.

"If you have a kid that comes from a poor neighborhood, it lets them know that there's something better in the world that they can strive for," Parker said. "I understand we're in an economic downturn, but we're going to pay something one way or another - I would rather pay taxes for something that helped children."

Tags: BERKELEY HIGH SCHOOL, MEASURE I, BERKELEY UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT, MEASURE H, MEASURE A, MEASURE AA


Soumya Karlamangla is the lead local schools reporter. Contact her at [email protected]



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