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Posted on January 14, 2010

BUSD Opts Out of Race to the Top Program

By Riya Bhattacharjee

Berkeley Unified School District Superintendent Bill Huyett said Monday the governor’s new budget would result in significant cuts to the district in 2010-11.

Huyett acknowledged that the district didn’t have any definite plans of how to address the estimated $2 million budget deficit predicted in the latest forecast, but he hopes to have a solution soon. The cuts are in addition to the $8 million slashed last year.

Although hundreds of school districts have signed up for President Obama’s Race to the Top grant program this year to take advantage of federal funds during a tough economy, Berkeley Unified decided against it last week because of doubts about what would be required of districts that accepted the relatively small amount of federal money.

Gov. Schwarzenegger said that his budget calls for public-education funding to be maintained at its current level and that it will give school districts additional flexibility to avoid unnecessary classroom spending. Schwarze-negger also says his budget will build on the reforms outlined in President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, which will provide $4.35 billion nationally from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

However, Huyett noted, the governor “said one thing and did another” when he announced his budget.

“He’s talking about keeping money in the classrooms, but there are cuts,” Huyett said. A closer look at the governor’s budget, he said, shows that he has proposed cuts of up to $1.5 billion this year.

“The governor has been very vague about this,” Huyett said. “He is saying that the cuts will be made from the central office, but what does that mean? Don’t tell me that that’s not a cut for education.”

“It looks like we will lose $200 to $225 per student in our district from what he’s proposed,” Huyett said.

Berkeley Unified had to cut program funding last year in order to bridge millions of dollars of deficits. Although teachers were spared layoffs for the most part—one art teacher and two counselors lost their jobs—BUSD did issue pink slips to custodians. Adult education took a hit, as did after-school programs.

Huyett said that, although funds from Race to the Top might have helped the district during these difficult times, the amount of money offered was not enough to sway the board and the district.

“We had originally thought we would get a lot of money,” he said. “But then we realized that it would be spread out over four years and it won’t be that much. Only time will tell if we are missing out or not.”

The whole state of California may be eligible for up to $700 million from Race to the Top, which is designed to encourage and reward states and school districts for innovation and reform.

Although BUSD submitted a letter of intent to the state Department of Education earlier this month about working with the state for Race to the Top, Huyett said the district had backed out because the state did not have a clear implementation plan yet.

Districts were given a deadline of Friday, Jan. 8, to take part in the initiative.

“The School Board said that, unless the state has a plan they could see, they did not want to sign an agreement from which they could not be removed,” Huyett said. “That was the biggest concern. The state doesn’t have any specific plans yet, and we are being required to sign off on them. We don’t want to be obligated without knowing what we are going in for.”

The state is scheduled to release a specific plan on how it plans to use the federal money Jan. 19.

Although both Schwarzenegger and state schools chief Jack O’Connell support Race to the Top, local East Bay leaders, including Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums and Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, have opposed it, calling some of the requirements already set in the federal program too drastic. Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates did not return calls from the Planet asking if he supported or opposed the program. [emphasis added]

Dellums administration Director of Communications Paul Rose told the Daily Planet that the mayor had refused to sign a letter that nine other California mayors had endorsed asking state lawmakers to make changes to the way the state was applying for the grant.

Rose said Dellums wanted the application to include conditions that would allow public schools to have the same amount of flexibility as charter schools, would address the existing wealth gap in public schools and would bring in a more diverse pool of teachers.

However Oakland Unified School District spokesperson Troy Flint told the Planet that administrators in his district had applied for Race to the Top funding.

“While objections to various provisions of Race to the Top may have merit, they are not sufficient to remove ourselves from consideration when so much is at stake,” Flint said in an e-mail. “Our first and foremost concern is doing what’s necessary to ensure California is competitive for Race to the Top funding; we can define the small details later. While no legislation is perfect, Race to the Top will fund valuable programs that benefit children—and California’s children should be among them.”

Flint said that the Oakland Board of Education is scheduled to vote Wednesday evening, after the Planet goes to print, on whether the district should collaborate with the state for the funds.

McLaughlin also called for an end to the state’s wealth gap. Calls to McLaughlin were not returned by press time. [emphasis added]

Huyett said BUSD would have received a total of $600,000—$150,000 a year, spread over a four-year period—if it had qualified for Race to the Top.

“At the same time, we would have also incurred a lot of costs—we’d have to hire people to administer the program—so it wouldn’t really have been cost beneficial,” he said.


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