BUSD moves forward on affordable housing for teachers, revocation of REALM charter

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The Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, board held its bimonthly meeting Wednesday to discuss retention and affordable housing for teachers, among other teachers’ concerns.

The meeting began with commentary from community members who spoke about the future of REALM Charter School, wages and contracts for teachers and coaches, and potential rezoning of middle schools to promote diversity and equity.

Many teachers expressed concerns about retention under their current contracts, affordability of  high housing costs and low wages. Robert Thomas, a seventh-grade math teacher at Willard Middle School, said he was “lucky” to live in a 350-square-foot, poorly maintained apartment with a rent that takes half of his paycheck each month.

“My students are my family — my colleagues are my family,” said Genevieve Mage, an English teacher and yearbook adviser at Berkeley High School, who spoke at the meeting on behalf of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers. “But my family is being torn apart.”

In response to the teachers’ concerns, BUSD voted to advance the planning of affordable workforce housing and narrowed its choices from four to two sites. The parking lot of the Berkeley Adult School has an estimated yield of 108 units, and West Campus, a parking area on University Avenue, has an estimated yield of 80 units.

“There is a little bit of a balancing act that needs to be done,” said John Calise, executive director of facilities for BUSD. “We are in the business of education and not really in the business of being landlords.”

BUSD also approved the allocation of a stipend for $50,000 for coaches. During public comment, many students and parents voiced concerns that their coaches were not properly compensated for their work.

Another budget proposal, which would provide sanitary school products and $16,500 to renew emergency school supplies, was approved by the board.

“If we can do them for less, we obviously will,” BUSD board director Julie Sinai said.

In addition to the official budget changes, BUSD verbally approved making progress on the investigation that would rezone middle schools in the district. The issue was first brought to the table by community members from Longfellow Middle School, who felt that their school was losing diversity.

The plan is expected to be formally introduced with further analysis at a later BUSD meeting in which the board would approve the development of rezoning maps. If the project keeps to the planned timeline, the rezoning could go into effect in February 2020.

At the conclusion of the meeting, BUSD voted to approve a notice to revoke the charter for REALM Charter School, currently operating as a tuition-free public charter school. Several community members from REALM expressed discontent with the decision in closing public comment and voiced concerns that the school would close as a result of this decision.

“You guys are hurting people by doing this,” REALM admissions and administration support employee Yasmine Franco said. “We’re Berkeley families, too.”

Contact Katherine Finman at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @KateFinman_DC.