An empty seat on the dais has become a familiar sight at Berkeley School Board meetings.
But on Wednesday, for the first time all year, board member Judy Appel was seated back alongside her colleagues. The official suffered debilitating injuries after she and her wife were hit by a car in January, and missed several months of policymaking to undergo intensive surgeries and rehabilitation. Her colleagues gave her a warm welcome back Wednesday, when she showed up at 1231 Addison St. just in time for the start of the academic year.
“It felt really great to be back,” Appel told Berkeleyside on Thursday morning.
Appel said she has been “easing in gently” over the past month, meeting with new Superintendent Brent Stephens, and getting involved with some of the many district hiring decisions this summer. She plans to participate in all board meetings from here on out.
“I’ll slowly resume committee commitments and I’ll visit schools and kind of ramp up my involvement,” Appel said. “I’m definitely not entirely better yet — I’m not 100%, but I’m doing pretty well. I really care about the district and I’m excited to work with the new superintendent.”
Appel had just begun her year-long term as board president when, shortly after midnight Jan. 4, she and wife Alison Bernstein were walking in a crosswalk near their South Berkeley home and were struck by car. The crash, on Martin Luther King Jr. Way at Stuart Street, left the women, both in their 50s, in critical condition. Appel received numerous fractures and Bernstein, a prominent defense attorney, sustained a brain injury.
The driver, an 81-year-old Berkeley man, was found at fault for failing to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk. He was not arrested.
Speaking with Berkeleyside on Thursday, Appel did not go into detail about the state of her recovery, but said the torrent of support and well-wishes from the community has sped up that process.
“Sometimes that’s been in physical ways, and sometimes people sending us their prayers and good wishes. That’s all really helped. I’m not a religious person, but I do really think all this positive energy sent our way has really helped us heal better than people expected us to be able to,” she said.
In total, Appel missed 13 regular School Board meetings and several special sessions while in recovery. State law allows elected officials to take indefinite medical leave, according to BUSD. Appel also had to sit out several major district decisions, mostly notably the selection of the superintendent following Donald Evans’ retirement this spring.
“Obviously, choosing a superintendent is the biggest work of the board,” Appel said. “I knew the superintendent was leaving before the accident. I didn’t get to be involved in the selection process, which wasn’t hard at the time — I was totally out of it in the hospital. What’s really great is I serve on a board where I really trust my colleagues, and I like who they selected.”
Wednesday was Stephens’ first board meeting as superintendent too. Stephens had previously been a top administrator at San Francisco Unified, but BUSD plucked him after his contract was abruptly not renewed by the board there. His expressed interests and issues he tackled in previous districts — math achievement, equity, special education — align with priorities and needs in Berkeley.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Stephens addressed the community in a measured tone, sharing that he planned to visit all the schools in the first weeks.
“This was always my favorite time of the school year,” Stephens said. “”Please enjoy all of that energy.”
He also read a message in both English and Spanish, attempting to reassure families that the Trump administration’s proposed changes to the “public charge” definition — which would make it harder for immigrants who rely on some public benefits to obtain a green card — would not apply to most in the BUSD community.
“The superintendent is really interesting,” Appel said. “He seems to be someone who spends a lot of time talking with people, and listening.”
Stephens is inheriting a district during a major moment of staffing transition and with several likely contentious decisions on the horizon, including ongoing teachers union contract negotiations, the possible rezoning of the middle schools, and a likely third consecutive painful round of budget cuts.
Appel said she is ready to dive back into those issues, and is planning to particularly focus on special education this fall.
Appel officially relinquished her position as board president Wednesday, handing the reins to Beatriz Leyva-Cutler, who has served as acting president in Appel’s absence. Ty Alper will be vice president.
Alper got seriously choked up during Wednesday’s meeting as he welcomed his colleague back to the dais.
“We’ve really missed you,” he told Appel. “And it’s great to have you back.”