Realm Charter Middle School. Photo: Nancy Rubin

REALM Charter School is no longer out of a home for the 2017-18 school year, after obtaining a lease from the Berkeley Unified School District for a set of classrooms in a West Campus building.

REALM’s high school currently rents a much larger space at the site but will have to move at the end of the school year to make way for planned renovations and BUSD programs. The new lease, approved unanimously by the Berkeley School Board April 12, allows REALM to remain in the eight available classrooms at the site at 1222 University Ave.

REALM’s high school and middle school are now set to swap spots next year. The high school will move to 2023 Eighth St. and the middle school will relocate to the West Campus rooms.

After struggling to find a new permanent home, REALM had requested an extension of its current lease earlier this year. In January, the Berkeley School Board denied that request. The district plans to use West Campus as a temporary site for BUSD students displaced by construction at other schools. Eventually, it could become a brand new elementary school.

In March, REALM came back to the board and proposed the consolidated REALM lease approved April 12.

REALM will rent the space at $3 per square foot plus custodial and maintenance costs. Under the conditions of the new lease, REALM cannot request to extend its stay at the West Campus after the 2017-18 school year. BUSD is not required by the state to provide a facility to REALM because neither of its schools serves the minimum of 80 students from within the district.

The Berkeley School Board in March 2017. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Victor Diaz, REALM’s executive director, said he is relieved to have secured a site for the year.

“Overall I’m thankful, and it will be a great space for the middle school,” he said. “I think we could have reached this agreement earlier in the year and probably had less trepidation on everyone’s part. But there were a lot of moving pieces.”

And for a while during Wednesday’s meeting, it was not clear anything would even be settled by the end of the night. Although REALM had proposed moving the middle school to the West Campus, the representatives from the charter school said recent discussions with families led them to believe it might be wiser to keep the high school there. They pointed out that sixth-grade students would end up spending each year of middle school at a different site if they stuck with the terms of the lease.

Some School Board members said they would support giving REALM the flexibility to decide which school went where after the lease was approved.

“I want to be more like the landlord,” leasing out the space but allowing the tenants to use it as they wish, said director Karen Hemphill.

Others said they didn’t want any ambiguity in the agreement.

“We’re here to make a decision, and given the past communication challenges we’ve had I’d be very uncomfortable with changes in any way,” Daniels said.

If REALM decided to have the high school at West Campus, a different lease would have to be drawn up and considered at the next meeting, he said.

After taking a break to confer outside, the REALM representatives said they would stick with the proposed lease for the middle school.

REALM families and staff packed into the March 8 Berkeley School Board meeting to defend their schools. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The new facility does not guarantee a certain future for the charter school, however.

The discussion of REALM’s facility needs has been wrapped up in concerns about the school’s financial stability. In January the School Board cited REALM for fiscal mismanagement, following an audit that found the middle school ended the 2015-16 school year with a negative fund balance of more than $1.1 million. The high school ended with a positive balance of $243,646.

If REALM does not present the board with a satisfactory plan to fix its financial problems by July 1, the board will consider revoking its charter.

Diaz said the settled facility issue will allow REALM to focus on cleaning up its finances and finding a permanent site for the future.

He already took the unprecedented action of laying off teachers in the middle of the school year this spring.

“It’s unfortunate, but right away it allows us to right-size our expenses,” Diaz said. “It’s a huge first step.”

Thanks in part to secured and potential grant funding, REALM is projecting a positive ending balance for both schools next year, he said.

But the uncertainty about the facilities and publicity around the financial woes caused many current and prospective students to reconsider enrolling in the schools next year, he said.

Many of those families are fiercely supportive of REALM and turned out in droves to a March board meeting to advocate for the schools. The parents and students said REALM is a safe haven for kids from districts with safety issues and weaker academic programs. The schools serve a far higher percentage of students of color and low-income students than BUSD.

REALM, which opened in 2011, is Berkeley’s only charter school. Its program focuses on project-based learning and social justice.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...