The Berkeley School Board has voted to pursue revocation of REALM’s charter. But the school system might merge with an online charter chain instead. Photo: Nancy Rubin

The future of REALM Charter School is once again in flux, with two very different options on the table.

The Berkeley School Board took the first step toward revoking the school’s charter during a dramatic meeting April 10 — but officials are also considering a proposal for the school to merge with online education chain Compass Charter Schools and stay in operation.

The merger would “moot the question of revocation,” said John Yeh, a lawyer for the district, but he encouraged the board to keep pursuing revocation while looking into the proposal.

A public hearing on the revocation will be held May 8, and the board will make its final decision May 29.

District staff cited REALM earlier this year for fiscal mismanagement, saying the charter school failed to pay employee pension contributions and submit an audit report, and owed companies it contracted with $1.5 million. The district has issued REALM similar warnings several times over the past few years.

But REALM’s leaders and supporters say the school has finally shaped up, securing a long-term facility at the Pacific School of Religion and a financial partner in Compass. Executive Director Victor Diaz said that even amid the institutional turmoil, REALM is sending kids to UC Berkeley and Stanford this fall.

Compass currently operates in Los Angeles, San Diego and Fresno counties, running online home-school programs in those regions. Merging with REALM would be the charter chain’s ticket to operating not only in Berkeley, but throughout Alameda and neighboring counties. Compass has already given REALM financial support, according to Diaz, and lent the school money to complete construction on its new facility. Diaz said he’s confident REALM would be able to keep operating at its brick-and-mortar schools after a merger, though he said some of his students with high anxiety or who help support their families might benefit from Compass’s online offerings.

District staff said Wednesday that they still have “significant questions” about Compass.

The merger would constitute a notable departure from typical business for Berkeley Unified, which only has one charter school. Diaz had previously worked for the district before he launched REALM, and has since operated two campuses — its middle and high schools— independently, not under a larger charter chain. His employees belong to the Berkeley teacher’s union.

REALM’s new school bus awaits passengers outside the high school recently. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Compass CEO and Superintendent J.J. Lewis said he’s committed to keeping REALM teachers unionized after the merger, but said they would need to negotiate a new contract so the teachers for Compass’s other virtual programs could remain outside the union. The merger petition, however, does not guarantee unionization.

“Although Compass is not bound by the Collective Bargaining Agreement between Berkeley Federation of Teachers and REALM, Compass intends to offer a competitive compensation package to REALM’s current employees that are offered employment with Compass,” the petition, submitted March 11, says.

The document also does not specify who would fill the school’s leadership positions after the merger.

“I don’t have plans to leave,” Diaz said. “I do hope to support the transition. If we can put the financial stuff behind us, we can refocus.”

Compass’s students perform a bit better than REALM’s on standardized tests, according to state data. In all three Compass counties and at both REALM schools, less than half of the students met the state standard level in either math or English in 2017-18, however. The two academic programs are very different, with REALM emphasizing hands-on project-based-learning, and Compass operating virtual schools.

REALM director walks out of tense meeting

J.J. Lewis, CEO and superintendent of Compass Charter Schools, tells the Berkeley School Board on April 10 he’s eager to pursue a merger. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

At a tense School Board meeting last Wednesday, Yeh, BUSD’s legal counsel, said the district is taking “a somewhat unusual step” of pursuing the revocation and the Compass merger at the same time, because the merger appears to be the only possible remedy for REALM’s financial issues. Last year, the district did the same, approving a consolidation of REALM’s own two charters to avoid a pending revocation then too, Yeh noted.

Diaz criticized officials for even continuing to consider revocation without fully addressing the merger.

“The board knows that the kids who are going to be impacted are low-income African American and Latino kids,” he told Berkeleyside. As a charter school, REALM can admit students outside its district, and mostly serves families from the West Contra Costa area. Some have told the board previously that they’ve found refuge and community at REALM. The school has had trouble meeting enrollment targets, however.

Diaz accused Yeh of “diabolically going after charter schools.” Yeh has represented several districts in cases against charter schools. “He is completely motivated and driven by shutting down charter schools,” said Diaz, calling it a “typical upper-middle-class liberal response.”

At the meeting, however, Yeh said the district was addressing the merger now because it could provide a way out for REALM. Revoking the charter “is obviously a very significant decision with impacts on teachers, staff and families,” he said.

Diaz later walked out of meeting in anger. Friday he said he’d been expecting to be able to give a presentation on the merger that night.

Three board members ultimately voted to move forward with the revocation, with Ka’Dijah Brown abstaining. A few other REALM supporters and partners who came for the item — including Pacific School of Religion President David Vasquez-Levy, the charter school’s landlord — also said they were left confused by the meeting process and felt the board had been dismissive of the issues affecting the REALM community.

Officials tried to reassure the audience that the public hearing process is standard, and noted that everyone was given a chance to speak during multiple public comment periods.

J.J. Lewis, the CEO and superintendent of Compass, said he wasn’t thrown off by the meeting.

“Mergers take a while to do,” he said. “They’re allowing us to engage in dialogue. The notice of intent to revoke put some of it in limbo, but we’re going to continue to operate as if there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Our strong desire is to work with the entire community to see REALM be successful.”

Lewis has led Compass since early 2016. He was previously a manager of philanthropic giving at Detroit Public Television. He holds a master’s degree in educational leadership and is currently pursuing a Ph.D at the University of Southern California.

The school system was previously called Academy of Arts and Sciences, and operated by Sean McManus. Now the CEO of consultancy E3 Education, McManus has been connected to several charter schools, sometimes facing accusations of skirting charter authorization rules.

Some charter leaders could be feeling a sense of urgency to expand operations in California this year, as several bills that could restrict charter school growth are currently making their way through the state legislature.

Assembly Bill 1506 would cap the active charters in the state at the number in operation in January, 2020, and AB 1507 would prevent charter schools from opening sites outside of their chartering districts.

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,...