Candidates for School Board Seats Face Minefield of a School District

Emma Schwartz covers Berkeley schools. E-mail her at [email protected].

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With a $3.9 million deficit in the city's school district, victory in tomorrow's election will only be the first challenge school board candidates face.

Six candidates, only two of which are incumbents, are vying for three open seats on the Berkeley Board of Education.

School board members will shoulder the responsibility for a district that was nearly taken over by the state for its deficit earlier this year. As it stands, the school board has until December to rewrite the Berkeley Unified School District's budget, after the Alameda County Board of Education rejected the initial proposal.

Incumbents Shirley Issel and Terry Doran have taken heat for approving a faulty budget last year that eventually led to the the current deficit.

The two candidates have pointed to their lack of information at the time and concrete steps they have taken to remedy the situation.

Rookie forerunner Nancy Riddle has campaigned heavily on her experience as a corporate chief financial officer, arguing that she possesses the acumen needed to pull the district out of the red.

Candidate Lance Montauk has pitted himself against ballot Measure K, which proposes a raise in the salaries of board members in a year of acute fiscal crisis.

One of the main problems in the district is inadequate communication, which candidate Derick Miller has vowed to improve if elected. Board members set policy and pass the budget for the school district, often without complete information regarding data about programs in the district.

There have been some signs of improvement.

In addition to a new data system, which will allow for better information circulation, Superintendent Michele Lawrence introduced more informational presentations at the meetings to expand board members' knowledge of district programming-ranging from Berkeley High School administrators to standardized testing data analysts.

But there is a long road ahead before the lines of communication are completely clear.

"Things that are in the planning process like the community meeting are definitely in the right direction," said student Boardmember Andy Turner.

The budget crisis has exacerbated the district's ability to keep thorough tabs on programs.

Until public uproar ensued, led in part by candidate Sean Dugar, over the elimination of the department chair in the African-American studies department at Berkeley High School in September, nobody with the district checked which departments were affected by salary-cut decisions.

Board members said the oversight was a result of the board's current focus on the deficit.

"When you're dealing with a crisis mode, some details just fall through the cracks," said Boardmember Joaquin Rivera. "That was one the district really failed to look at in more detail."

Beyond the budget, the district is undergoing evaluation of its schools and programs for the upcoming state accountability exams, such as the California High School Exit Exam in 2004.

"No matter how we feel about those exams, they are here and we have to deal with them," Rivera said.

Two district elementary schools, Rosa Parks Environmental Science Magnet and Washington Communication & and Technology, are already targeted by the federal government under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 for below-average performance on state tests.

With an eye on the budget, the district will have to draw on existing programs and resources in order to prepare students for these exams.


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