School board discusses budget and virtual academy – Berkeley High Jacket
Members of the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) community gathered on Wednesday, April 13 for a school board meeting. Discussion topics ranged from the closure plan for BUSD’s Virtual Academy, an online school option for BUSD students, to a presentation on takeaways from a community survey of budget priorities.
During the opportunity for public comment at the start of the meeting, the board’s decision to shut down BUSD’s virtual academy sparked an outpouring of concern. More than ten members of the community, including students, parents and teachers of the virtual academy, have expressed their desire to continue to have the possibility of attending school online.
Some parents explained that they lived in households with immunocompromised family members and did not feel safe with the risk of their children bringing COVID-19 home from school. Others said that as single parents they felt they could not afford to get sick or for their children to get sick.
“The number one reason families choose virtual is to have a medically fragile family member or student,” said Yvette Felarca, a teacher at the virtual academy. “And the vast majority of families and teachers in our program are families and teachers of color who have already suffered far too much loss because of [COVID-19]. …Keep the virtual academy and all virtual teachers.
Parents stressed that if the virtual academy closed, they would have to choose between sending their children to school in person or homeschooling them, an option that requires more parental involvement and participation.
The council did not respond to these comments. In a later presentation, however, the virtual academy and its five teaching positions were included in next year’s list of potential budget cuts, totaling five hundred thousand dollars.
In addition to the virtual academy, the BUSD community also shared their thoughts on California Senate Bill 1479, which continues to fund and support the state for COVID-19 testing in schools.
Many commentators endorsed this bill and supported the council’s decision to write a letter in support of the bill to the California legislature. Some people, however, shared that they felt this test was an invasion of personal autonomy.
Council Director Ana Vasudeo responded to the comments, saying she was happy to hear support and stressing the importance of COVID-19 testing in order to be able to keep schools open. At the end of the meeting, the council approved a motion to send their letter of support to the California legislature.
During the meeting, the board received several presentations, the first of which was made by Assistant Superintendent Pauline Follansbee and Superintendent Brent Stephens. They updated the board and community on the budget for next year, although the budget won’t be finalized until June.
After receiving community responses to a survey assessing budget priorities, Folansbee and Stephens took those priorities into account when considering what to fund for the next year.
Later in the meeting, Associate Superintendent Rubén Aurelio, along with other district staff, presented Stage Two of the Comprehensive Coordinated Early Intervention Services (CCEIS) plan for board approval. This plan aims to address the district’s overrepresentation of certain groups, primarily African American and Latino students, in special education through early intervention and prevention.
“BUSD has been identified by the California State Department of Education…as having a significant overrepresentation of certain cultural, ethnic, and racial groups in special education or other disciplinary systems for the 2021 school year “said President Ka’Dijah Brown. “The goal of CCEIS is to improve the educational outcomes of identified groups…and hopefully reduce the overrepresentation of these identified groups.”
After extensive discussion, the board unanimously approved the measurable outcomes proposed by the presentation, along with funding of $324,000.
The next presentation was a review of the 2020-21 annual financial audit by Deputy Superintendent Pauline Follansbee, Charles Robly, the external auditor, and Isaiah Roter, member of the audit committee.
Roter explained that in past audits, there were no findings, meaning the auditors did not find any discrepancies or weaknesses in the district’s accounting. In this audit, however, there was one finding.
The singular discovery concerned the district’s self-insurance fund; there was a discrepancy between what had been determined as the claims reserve, or total liability, and what the actuarial studies had identified. Roter explained that the audit committee believes this finding is “more in the nature of judgment than error.”
Roter highlighted the positive results of the audit, explaining that the district received an “unmodified” or “clean” opinion from the auditor, which he said is “the highest assurance that the audit profession provides”.
Roter went on to point out that over the past year the district received COVID-19-related funding from many different sources, each with specific requirements for how the money could be used.
“The auditor reviewed each of these sources and found full compliance with each item,” Roter said. “It’s a tremendous achievement in a very difficult year.”