Public comment dominates Berkeley school district meeting on transportation, REALM charter

Samuel Albillo/Staff

Berkeley High School senior and Berkeley Unified School District student director Arvin Hariri chaired the BUSD board meeting Wednesday night as a part of an annual tradition and led discussions on the education budget, transportation plans and special education programs.

The meeting, which was Hariri’s second-to-last meeting in his position, began with a presentation from students who participate in the ambassador program at Berkeley Arts Magnet at Whittier School, which trains fifth grade students to assist in conflict mediation on the playground.

The students’ speech was followed by public comment, in which many individuals shared their concerns about changes to transportation for after-school programs, the merger involving REALM Charter School, REALM’s potential closure, and animal abuse.

According to several parents who spoke at the meeting, there was miscommunication about potential transportation policy changes between the school district and after-school programs as well as parents from BUSD’s transportation board.

“Even though there has been some miscommunication, I think we need to approach it from a place of positivity,” said Samantha Kelman, interim CEO of the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay, which runs an after-school program, during the meeting. “I just think it takes more voices, and we are lending our voices right now.”

In a discussion item later in the meeting, the board verbally approved the district’s proposal to hold the issue for discussion in the fall and to hold implementation until the 2020-21 school year, which Jewish Community Center of the East Bay board member Shirley Issel said would allow time for the district to properly work with the after-school programs.

The conversation about REALM Charter School’s proposed merger and potential revocation was also continued during public comment, featuring both speakers who supported and speakers who opposed the proposition. No action items were decided upon at the meeting regarding the charter, but a public hearing was held.

Public comment included a presentation by Girl Scout Troop 33531 about the troop’s recent work on its Bronze Award project. The project is focused on animal abuse, and the presenters said they worked with community groups to determine the extent of the problem. They also developed a website and created a curriculum for teachers to implement in the district, which they proposed at the meeting to the board members.

Although the board members could not respond to the troop directly by law, Hariri said they would reach out to the group after the meeting for further correspondence.

“It’s good to see (the Girl Scouts) fighting for a cause because, you know, that’s what we teach in Berkeley: standing up for what you believe in,” said BUSD Superintendent Donald Evans during the meeting. He added that this meeting would be his third-to-last before his retirement next month.

No official action items were discussed at the meeting, although information regarding progress on the special education program and the annual school budget was presented to the board.

The meeting ended with a public hearing on the revocation of REALM’s charter. Only one person — Eva Padilla, REALM’s school operations administrative lead — spoke at the hearing. According to REALM admissions and administration support staff member Yasmine Franco, who spoke at the earlier public comment, the 10 p.m. hearing was too late for REALM families to attend.

“I would greatly encourage you to come by and visit our school and see the relationships and walk into the classroom and listen to instruction, because you will see a different picture than, you know, whatever is online or test scores,” Padilla said during the meeting. “To me, what matters most is seeing our kids succeed and come back and coming to see us and seeing our successful stories.”

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