Budget Deficit Prompts Major Cuts to Schools

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Berkeley schools will face sweeping changes in staffing and organization as the school board made cuts last night to accommodate a $6 million budget deficit.

The Berkeley Board of Education voted to eliminate more than 150 teaching positions and to limit students at Berkeley High School to only six periods per day. The course limit, along with other slight modifications at the high school, is estimated to save $520,000 per year.

By declaring "a severe fiscal emergency," the school board was also able to increase class sizes for all grades, saving $1,243,978.

Under the multi-faceted budget-reduction plan, the board also agreed to reorganize the Berkeley Unified School District's administrative staff, eliminating some positions and creating others to eliminate redundancy and increase accountability.

Superintendent Michele Lawrence withdrew her recommendation to close City of Franklin Microsociety Magnet School, a move that would save an estimated $326,000. The proposal to shut down the elementary school was prompted by the school's small enrollment and its inability to cover its costs.

The proposal has been withdrawn pending more input from the school community and district staff.

"I attended a meeting at Franklin on Monday, and they posed questions to me that I could not answer," Lawrence said at last night's school board meeting. "I owe better answers to that community."

Boardmember Joaquin Rivera said he believes that, despite the hold-off, the school will most likely be closed.

"I think that postponing the decision just prolongs the agony, and I think that in the end we will come to the decision to close the school, because it is not an attractive choice for our community," he said.

Lawrence calmed parent and student concerns about reductions to funding for libraries and literacy programs.

"From my viewpoint, libraries and literacy must remain a top priority, and we will not be cutting them unless there is a dire emergency," Lawrence said.

Lawrence's recommendation to increase class time from 47 to 55 minutes and limit Berkeley High students to six periods gained support from wary board members.

"The proposed changes don't prevent students from meeting state university requirements, doing very well, achieving a lot and being able to qualify for some of the elite schools of our nation," said Boardmember Terry Doran.

Members of the public, however, disagreed with the move to limit students to a six-period day because it eliminates options for electives. Students at the school are presently able to take between five and eight classes.

"When it comes to the six-period day, Berkeley High doesn't have much to pride itself on besides the music and the art, and approving the six-period day will cut out that program," said Berkeley High student Ellie Lammer.

The layoffs approved by the board are based on a worst-case scenario and may be revised if money can be found elsewhere. The approved plan allows for vice principals to be laid off as a last resort.

The district needed to make a decision on the layoffs in order to meet a state-mandated March 15 deadline for notifying teachers they may be fired.

"There are many recommendations that will be modified and adjusted over the next few months, and a lot of the layoff notices may be rescinded," Lawrence said.

Despite the layoffs, Lawrence was commended by Barry Fike, president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, for "leading us head on."


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