Questions raised in Berkeley about invitation-only meeting on educational initiative

The Berkeley community is asking whether a closed meeting about the achievement gap for minority students violates the Brown Act. -DB

The Berkeley Daily Planet
By Riya Bhattacharjee
Jan. 29, 2009

The Berkeley Board of Education, at a public meeting Wednesday, unanimously approved a $50,000 contract with the non-profit Berkeley Alliance to oversee the process of developing a city-wide plan to close the achievement gap for minority students, as outlined by the 2020 Vision, a partnership started by the City of Berkeley, the Berkeley Unified School District and a group of community organizations in June.

Bill Huyett, superintendent of the Berkeley Unified School District, said that the Alliance had asked for $150,000 to complete the work assigned to them, but that the district was only able to contribute the amount in the contract. That amount was made possible by a one-time $400,000 Program Improvement Corrective Action grant the school district received as part of the millions of dollars in intervention funds awarded to 92 school districts by the state Department of Education in October.

“The Program Improvement grant is also to close the achievement gap so we took it out of that fund,” he said, adding that the city—which he called an “equal partner in the 2020 Vision”— had committed about $20,000 to fund the Alliance, and were looking at getting to $50,000.

School board vice president Karen Hemphill said that it was important to pressure the city to put up the $50,000 and urged other board members to lobby their district representatives.

Huyett informed the board that the Alliance was in the process of writing grants and soliciting funds to cover its expenses in case the city and the school district were unable to do so.

Lisa Caronna, Berkeley’s Deputy City Manager, told the Planet Thursday that the city was trying to include a $25,000 commitment to the Alliance as part of its upcoming budget discussion.

“The school board had a grant and they were able to apply it very quickly,” she said. “We don’t have a grant like that. The city supports the Alliance but in terms of future commitments we haven’t really talked about the needs because we don’t even know yet what they are. It’s too early.”

District officials said that the money set aside for approving the contract with the Alliance would go toward funding the three-day retreat at the Berkeley Yacht Club starting today, which will launch an All City Equity Task force and pay grant writers and the salary of the Alliance’s outgoing executive director Tracey Schear, who is shepherding the project.

The Alliance, under a $61,800 one-year contract with the city to provide services for the 2020 Vision, among others, formed the 2020 Vision Planning Team in August, comprised of 19 members drawn from the city, the school district, United in Action, BayCES, UC Berkeley, Berkeley City College and Schear herself, to draw up an action plan, including forming the task force.

Although the Alliance is posting dates and agendas for all the task force meetings on its website,, as it is required to do under the Brown Act, it has not posted information about the weekend retreat it is in charge of organizing.

Messages left for Schear at the Berkeley Alliance office were not returned.

District officials and community members called the event a “private, by invitation-only” affair, where around 60 to 80 individuals from the district, the city and the community would get together and brainstorm some strategies for the 2020 Vision, before taking it to the broader community.

Both Huyett and Caronna said that although they couldn’t speak for the Alliance on whether it was violating the Brown Act by not making the meeting public, they were under the impression that since it was going to be a training session about education, it did not have to comply with the Brown Act, which states that all public meetings have to be noticed.

“It’s related to youth and youth services and we are going to be discussing data from the city and the school district,” Caronna said. “There’s going to be a lot of people who may not even be in the final task force.”

However, Terry Francke, an attorney for Californians Aware who is an expert on the Brown Act, said that since the resolutions which created both the planning committee and eventually the task force were approved by both the school board and the City Council when Vision 2020 was first initiated in June of 2008, the upcoming meeting is subject to the Brown Act and therefore should be public.

“Without the City Council’s direction and approval this task force would not have been formed,” he said. “The school district’s and City Council’s fingerprints are all over this task force, and for that reason it’s subject to the Brown Act.”