REALM Charter School merger could threaten union agreement

Angelina Yin/Staff

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The planned merger of Berkeley’s REALM Charter School with a larger charter school organization, which was first reported by Berkeleyside, could jeopardize the school’s current agreement with the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, or BFT, a local union.

REALM, a charter middle and high school in Berkeley, has faced considerable financial woes in recent years, with the Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, issuing a notice of violation for its poor financial health Feb. 6. The notice is one of several REALM has received since its charter was last renewed. A merger with Compass Charter School now promises to alleviate some of REALM’s troubles, but leaves open questions of the union’s status at the schools.

REALM’s current agreement with the BFT establishes standards for REALM teachers’ working environments, such as maximum daily hours and guaranteed sick leave. The union’s agreement with REALM, according to Matt Meyer, vice president of the BFT, has been in the works for the past four years. Members of the BFT are apprehensive about the future of the union’s status at the school.

“Compass doesn’t recognize the current collective bargain(ing) agreement,” said J.J. Lewis, superintendent and CEO of Compass. “Compass needs to arrive at another agreement (with the BFT) by June 1.”

It is not unprecedented for charter schools and unions to have tense relations. Joshua Pechthalt, the president of the California Federation of Teachers, or CFT — BFT’s state-level affiliate — called charters schools a threat to “the very nature of public education” in an article on the CFT website.

REALM’s current cooperation with the BFT is uncommon. It is, as of 2016, part of just over a tenth of all charter schools nationwide which entered into agreements with unions. Compass is not a part of that minority, as a corporation in which Lewis claimed that “teachers have not gone through and wanted to unionize.”

“(REALM) was very much a community school. It wasn’t part of the charter chain … This (merger) is very much a departure from that,” Meyer said. “We’ve been working on our contract at REALM for the last four years.”

REALM as a corporation, however, may soon cease to exist. Although Lewis stressed that the deal between REALM and Compass is not a hostile takeover or acquisition, the merger resolution stated that the “corporate existence of REALM shall cease and Compass shall continue as the surviving corporation.”

The current deal, according to Lewis, is predicated on REALM’s successful reduction of debt by 30 percent. Multiple finance-related notices of violation have been issued by the BUSD since 2016.

BUSD director Ty Alper noted concerns over REALM’s finances, saying in an email that the charter’s “financial health has long been a concern and we will need to review and evaluate REALM’s response to the notice of violation that we recently issued.”

If REALM succeeds in improving its financial position, Compass is offering the adoption of its debts and liabilities. Lewis also detailed plans to attempt to increase enrollment in online, independent study classes. Apart from these, Lewis said, REALM’s curriculum would go relatively unchanged.

“I’m excited to work with anybody who wants to work to make sure this merger is successful,” Lewis said. “That includes all stakeholders …. All voices are wanted, all voices are valued.”

Contact Ben Klein at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @BenKlein_dc ‏.