Op-ed: Less shoot-from-the-hip, more planning for schools

In the past fourteen years, the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) has authorized $327 million in capital improvements. That represents approximately $15,000 in taxes per household, or about $35,000 per student, a generous investment by Berkeley residents. Most people are surprised to learn, however, that BUSD has allocated these resources without a Facilities Master Plan.

A Facilities Master Plan gathers and analyzes information from various sources to provide a comprehensive study of the district’s facility needs. Projections of student enrollment, an inventory of district assets, an examination of educational program requirements, and costs and options for capital projects are brought together into a single study. The plan presents data, analysis, and recommendations in a format suitable for public discussion and vetting, so that decisions are based on good information, and everyone understands the rationale for prioritizing projects.

What are the results of making these decisions without a plan in place? Eight of our eleven elementary schools are “critically overcrowded,” defined by the California Department of Education (CDE) as a density greater than twice the CDE standard; Oxford elementary is at 400% the CDE standard. Support staff, such as special education teachers, ESL teachers, librarians, PE teachers, office staff, playground monitors, and lunchroom staff, stretch themselves thinner and thinner as they try to serve larger populations of kids. Enrichment rooms are converted to classrooms, leaving no dedicated space for science, art, or music. Lunch periods are shortened to make more lunch periods; many kids don’t have enough time to eat, and return to class hungry and distracted.

Overcrowded playgrounds result in reduced exercise and outdoor time and more playground conflicts. Assemblies for school functions occur in overcrowded and over-capacity auditoriums. Parents are less likely to feel a part of the school, and so less likely to become involved. Bathrooms are dirty from overuse by more children than designed. The list goes on and on.

Without data and analysis to guide spending, decisions are not made on the merits or the urgency of a project. Instead, decisions become politicized, or are made based upon how vocal or engaged a particular project’s supporters are.

We can see first-hand how the lack of a cost-benefit analysis leads to poor decisions about spending. Here we are, numbers showing we are down at least one whole elementary school, but with a $10 million new district office and a $5 million sports complex. These are both worthy projects in their own right. However, the first priority must be adequate school facilities that meet basic educational standards, so teachers can teach and children can learn.

Jonathan Knight, president of the Albany School Board, says of the Albany Facilities Master Plan: “Because the whole community could participate in creating the plan, I think people are much more likely to understand and support facilities decisions made by the board and the district administration. I would also say that decisions about facilities have become much easier now that we have a map in hand of what each upgrade or retrofit will cost and how important it is in the bigger scheme.”

Luckily, there are signs that our school board and our new superintendent are starting to understand that a well-run district requires accurate data and thoughtful analysis. Both Superintendent Evans and school board member Karen Hemphill publicly committed to a Facilities Master Plan last fall. Ty Alper, currently running for the school board, has written that he also endorses a Facilities Master Plan. This is progress; however, we need more school board members to agree before a plan can be authorized.

We cannot fix these problems in the short term. That’s the bad news. The good news is that we can fix these problems if we move forward. Election time will soon be upon us. Ears will be open. Hands will be gladding. Let the school board and Superintendent Evans know that you support a facilities master plan by sending a short email to boardofed@berkeley.net.

And while you’re at it, sign your name on the petition, and don’t forget to vote!

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Mark Lemkin is a longtime Berkeley resident with two children at BUSD elementary schools.