Berkeley school district board introduces new superintendent, hosts musical talent

Kavya Narendra Babu /Staff

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The Berkeley Unified School District’s regular semimonthly meeting Wednesday was marked by the introduction of the new superintendent, a musical performance by Young Gifted and Black, a lengthy discussion of the future of REALM Charter School and a visit from board President Judy Appel, who is currently on medical leave.

The meeting opened with the introduction of Brent Stephens, the current chief academic officer of the San Francisco Unified School District. Stephens will be taking over the role of current Superintendent Donald Evans, who will be retiring from BUSD in July.

“I have a number of core values that I hope to show you all during my leadership,” Stephens said, addressing the teachers in the audience. “I believe very much that public schools belong to all of us — to all of the community — and that working together, we can accomplish great things on behalf of all students.”

Appel, who spent the past four months in the hospital after she and her wife were struck by a vehicle, also made an appearance at the meeting. She said she looks forward to filling her role again soon but did not specify exactly when she would return.

Oakland-based youth group Young Gifted and Black gave a performance at the meeting centered around Black empowerment and justice. Several people spoke on the group’s behalf, asking for continued funding for the program, which Evans later said would be provided.

Other young student activists also attended the meeting to speak about sustainability. A fourth grade class from Thousand Oaks Elementary School held a presentation asking for solar energy to be implemented at all schools districtwide. The class said it is currently only being used at half of BUSD’s campuses.

“We are here to respectfully ask you to update the current solar plan to include all the schools and to include solar in the construction bond,” the students said in a video. “Please do it for us and the earth.”

Vice President Beatriz Leyva-Cutler said she would make sure their request was passed on and taken into consideration.

About 2 1/2 hours at the end of the meeting were used to discuss the future of REALM Charter School, which is requesting approval to merge with Compass Charter Schools in order to aid with REALM’s financial issues. According to the district’s legal counsel John Yeh, REALM Charter School is currently in about $1.5 million of debt.

“If you think you have been frustrated with REALM’s financial mismanagement, try talking to the staff,” said REALM history teacher Ryan Tong during public comment in support of the merger. “I’m asking you to put this train wreck on new tracks.”

The board’s directors discussed the merger and voiced their concerns with the perceived uncertainty of the project, an alleged lack of communication between the charter’s decisions and the board, and the lack of diversity of Compass teachers, among other issues. They held a public hearing but ultimately opted to postpone the vote.

The board is planning to further discuss and make a decision on the merger at its next meeting May 22. It also plans to rule on an intent to revoke REALM’s charter at a meeting May 29, according to Yeh.

“I have definitely some concerns about what this will solve and want to see about diversity, and I understand that some of these concerns will come to fruition,” said Student Director Arvin Hariri. “But, with that being said, I really don’t see a better solution.”

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