Berkeley school district continues discussion of charter merger request, setting conditions for acceptance

Ben Klein/Staff

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Berkeley Unified School District board members continued long talks surrounding the future of REALM Charter School and the district’s sustainability efforts at their meeting on Wednesday.

The meeting lasted almost four hours and took place at the end of the Day of Action rally in Sacramento. The meeting started with public comment, during which community members voiced their support for REALM Charter School’s proposed merger with Compass Charter Schools and raised concerns about access to school buses after school hours.

You all have had a great vision for REALM here in Berkeley, and our goal in this merger is to continue to bring that vision to learning scholars,” said J.J. Lewis, superintendent and CEO of Compass Charter Schools, during public comment. “I urge the board to vote ‘yes’ to allow this dream and vision to continue, knowing that Compass will be by your side to support REALM, and in turn, the entire Compass community.”

The board addressed several public concerns, including the concerns over the district’s transportation funding. According to board director Julie Sinai, the board has yet to see a final proposal on transportation, which it will receive at its next meeting on May 29.

A preliminary budget for the next academic year — which would provide $240,000 in one-time funds to various programs, including the addition of a third intervention counselor for Berkeley High School — was presented to the board. It was also confirmed that funding for programs such as Young Gifted and Black, which performed at the last meeting, was secured through other means. The budget was unanimously approved as presented and will be officially confirmed in its final version at a board meeting in September.

The board also received updates on the progress of the district’s sustainability plan. According to a presentation by the facilities department, progress has been made in several areas of the plan, and a sustainability committee will be formed after a consultant is hired. Board Vice President Beatriz Leyva-Cutler added that she plans to include local experts on environmental issues and environmental justice on the committee and will ensure that the district better incorporates the state’s designated eco-literacy standards into its curriculum.

“I think there is wealth (of expertise) here in Berkeley that we need to tap into,” Leyva-Cutler said. “I’m really hopeful that we can figure out how to form a sustainability committee.”

The board meeting ended with an extended discussion of the request to allow Compass Charter Schools to oversee REALM through a merger. The curriculum of Compass includes an online education program, which many of the board members said they found to be concerning.

In the end, no action was taken, and the issue was tabled until June 12, according to board director Ty Alper. He added that a public hearing for a complete revocation of the charter — which would be voted on if the merger is not approved — will be held at the board’s May 29 meeting, although no decisions will be made on that date, either.

“Compass is coming here because it wants to expand into Northern California and come into the counties here,” Sinai said. “I have serious reservations for a variety of reasons.”

In the end, the board agreed upon a set of conditions that REALM and Compass would have to agree on and add to their material revision request before the merger can be approved. These measures include a commitment to seat-based — rather than online — learning, having consistent reports to the board about REALM’s standing, and ensuring that the Berkeley Federation of Teachers would continue to provide union representation for REALM’s staff.

According to Lewis, the conditions will be taken before Compass’ board, and a revised material revision will be presented to the BUSD board by May 31 at noon.

Unofficially, Alper said he intended to reject the merger, Sinai said she was undecided and that her decision would be contingent upon the wording of the new revision, and Leyva-Cutler, board director Ka’Dijah Brown and student director Arvin Hariri said they intended to approve the merger if the conditions were agreed upon by Compass and REALM.

“I feel like we are being put in a position to approve an online charter program so that we can save REALM, not because we academically or educationally think that is the best way to educate students,” Sinai said. “I want to make my decision based on what I think is good for kids.”

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