A classroom at REALM, which could see its charter revoked by BUSD in the coming weeks or months . Photo: Tracey Taylor

REALM, Berkeley’s only charter school system, has been on the brink of getting its charter revoked multiple times over the past couple of years.

Now, Berkeley Unified is closer than ever to following through with revocation, but for a different reason than the financial woes that put REALM in a vulnerable position in the past.

The Berkeley School Board voted 4-0 Wednesday night to issue a notice of an intent to revoke the charter, but board members said that if REALM quickly remedies its violation — illegally moving to a temporary site outside the county — they’d be unlikely to follow through on the threat.

REALM seemed to be on slightly more solid ground recently, having consolidated its two schools and having secured a new campus for its middle school at the Pacific School of Religion in North Berkeley. But the school had to delay its move, so the students and staff started the 2018-19 school year at a temporary site in El Cerrito, where Tehiyah Day School was located before it closed earlier this year.

California education law only permits charter schools to be located outside of district bounds if they stay within the county. REALM’s temporary site is in Contra Costa County, not Alameda County. REALM also failed to take other steps required before any relocation, according to BUSD.

The district gave REALM an official warning in September after staff and School Board members noted that they could be held liable for REALM’s illegal move.

REALM was given a short period of time to come up with a remedy. According to Assistant Superintendent Pauline Follansbee, REALM told the district that the middle school was set to move into its permanent Berkeley home by the end of October, but it still remains in El Cerrito.

“No one wants REALM to operate in Berkeley more than I do, more than our board, and certainly more than our parents and staff,” REALM Director Victor Diaz told the board during an allotted three minutes Wednesday. “We’re doing everything we can to move in as soon as we can.”

Diaz said REALM has signed a long-term lease at the Pacific School of Religion, where both REALM and PCR have poured money into fixing up the site for the charter school. Unexpected fire safety issues have prolonged the process, he said.

REALM Executive Director Victor Diaz (front) and Assistant Superintendent Pauline Follansbee address the School Board Wednesday. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

During the short time he was given to speak, Diaz did not say when exactly he expects the remaining work to be completed.

Some board members indicated that they felt they were in a tough spot, saying they needed to avoid legal consequences but wanted to search for ways to draw out the revocation process, in case REALM could move back to Berkeley before the final decision had to be made. 

“I don’t have any desire, and I don’t think anyone here has a desire, to revoke the charter based on this,” Judy Appel said. “But I also feel like we have an obligation under the law, and this was a clear red-line violation.”

Beatriz Leyva-Cutler was absent, but the four other board members at the the meeting voted in support of beginning the long revocation process.

Now that the notice has been issued, the board must hold a required public hearing on the revocation within 30 days, and take a final vote within 60 days after that. If the board decided to revoke the charter at that point, REALM could appeal the decision.

If REALM was able to move to back to Berkeley within that 90-day timeframe, the schools could likely remain chartered in Berkeley, board members said.

“If you’re back in Berkeley, my guess is a future board wouldn’t be interested in moving forward,” Karen Hemphill said. Revocation “would be a moot point.” 

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,...