Board Extends Preschool Funding

Photo: Parents and teachers voiced concern about preschool funding cuts at the Berkeley Unified School District Board of Education meeting.
Tim Maloney/Staff
Parents and teachers voiced concern about preschool funding cuts at the Berkeley Unified School District Board of Education meeting.

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Welcomed by a round of applause, members of the Berkeley Unified School District Board of Education decided Wednesday night to continue funding preschool and child care programs with the district's own funds until the end of January.

The board voted unanimously to contribute $148,000 to keep the programs alive until Jan. 31 - or until a state budget is approved - thereby also securing the jobs of over 40 teachers and instructional assistants who work within the programs.

"We're very, very grateful," said Maria Carriedo, principal of the district's three preschools. "To cut preschool right now ... will pause all of our plans to close the achievement gap and hurt the families that are most in need."

Over the past six months, the district's preschool program - which serves 370 students, almost all of whom are low-income - has been left to "twist in the wind," according to district Superintendent Bill Huyett, while the district has scrambled to fund the program on its own.

In August, as the beginning of the school year approached, the district made its first decision to keep preschool and after-school programs alive, even as the state budget remained unapproved. At an Aug. 18 board meeting, members voted to begin the new school year with fewer after-school programs and to maintain the preschool programs at reduced hours until Oct. 31 with the hope that a state budget would be approved before then. The two-month extension required a $38,000 contribution from the district.

Now, almost a month into the school year, the board met again Wednesday night to decide whether to extend the programs further until the end of January.

About 40 parents, students and teachers attended the meeting in support of the programs, and several came forward asking the board members to "be the heroes in the midst of this stupid crisis we're in."

"This decision today - if you're going to ... throw us a lifeline - really makes the difference between success and failure in (the kids') lives, but also, it may be one of the most important decisions you make this year," said Pablo Paredes, a Berkeley resident and district parent, at the meeting.

The board voted unanimously to contribute $148,000 from the district's reserves to fund the programs until Jan. 31.

For over half a year, the district has been grappling with where to make cuts. When the first budget cuts were proposed in March, the district was preparing for a $2.7 million cut to its funds, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's May revision bumped that number up to $3.1 million. The revision also slashed the district's $5 million preschool and after-school programs for low-income families by $3.6 million.

District officials and educators have long stressed the importance of pre-school programs, making these decisions in the district - and around the state - high-profile and emotional for many community members.

"When children are able to attend quality preschools, they walk in the kindergarten door eager and ready to learn," said Cynthia Allman, an officer with Berkeley Federation of Teachers, the local teachers' union. "The effects (of additional cuts) will ripple up the entire K-12 system for years to come."

The board was also considering laying off almost 50 teachers and instructional assistants that work at the preschools or after-school programs but was able to avoid this move once the extensions were approved.

Cathy Campbell, president of the teachers' union, said she is relieved teachers - 20 of whom currently work in the preschool program - were not laid off. Eleven teachers were laid off earlier this year when program hours were reduced in August.

"That would've been a double whammy," she said. "But I don't think there's any district that hasn't either reduced or eliminated their programs."

Huyett said he expects a budget with preschool funding to be passed before Jan. 31, which would grant the district its reimbursement from the state. But if preschool funding is cut at the state level, the district will have spent $448,000 that will not be returned.

"We think that this is a risk worth taking, given the terrible downside of not doing it," Huyett said.

For the 2011-12 school year, the district is expecting at least $5 million in cuts from its state funds, making district cuts over the past four years total at least $19 million.

"There's going to come a point where we have to do things we hate doing," said board director Shirley Issel. "Please have mercy on this board come spring."


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

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