Ears on the Board of Education: March 26, 2020

by Diane Payne

The Board of Education conducted this Action Meeting following  a number of adaptations to pandemic restrictions. In times of crisis, we may lose sight of the importance of following long-established government rules and policies, but these are the very times that make that even more important. The PA Sunshine Act ensures that the public has the ability to observe and  participate in decisions made by their government. While adjusting to the needs of Governor Wolf’s public safety direction to not gather in groups, it is incumbent on the Board to facilitate Action Meetings with as much public participation as technology affords. The Board had initially allowed for no public participation, saying that people could send in testimony 24 hours before the meeting, summaries of which would be read by Board members.  No public voices would be heard during the meeting. APPS continued to point out–in public statements and in letters to the Board–that available technology allowed for them to take and respond to questions and comments in a number of ways. For example, if most of the Board members were participating by phone, then one phone line could be used to hear from the community. Comments and questions taken via twitter and email could be answered during the meeting–and when the meeting came, that is exactly what the Board did.  It was heartening to see APPS’ suggestions put into practice. Board members read public testimony in full, and they read and responded to messages sent via twitter and email. Superintendent Hite did try to answer some of those questions with promises to provide additional answers in the follow-up venues of FAQs on the District website and his weekly Facebook live meetings on Wednesdays at 3:00 p.m. The Board has promised to improve on its efforts for April’s meeting by tapping into the technology options that offer live, interactive possibilities. Unfortunately, the Board’s introduction of two crucial items the day of the meeting has served to cast doubt on the Board’s promises of transparency.

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APPS Letter to the Board: Action Meetings Must Remain Public

March 24, 2020

Dear President Wilkerson and Members of the Board of Education,

We write to you concerning the protocols for the March 26, 2020 Action Meeting.

Holding a meeting that the public cannot attend in person violates the PA Sunshine Act, but of course the Board must heed the health warnings from city and state officials. The alternative is to hold a virtual meeting that the public can both observe and participate in. Current technology allows for both of these.

The Board has announced that it will live-stream the meeting at the scheduled time. Members of the public can send in testimony in writing or by phone no later than 24 hours before the meeting. Members of the Board will read summaries of those testimonies.

That is not a public meeting.  That is a live TV show.

We have been told that most Board members will be present via phone. That same technology could be used to have members of the public testify via phone. People could submit their numbers by calling in advance or emailing their phone numbers and topics before the meeting. Staff could call them at the appropriate time—before or after voting—and each person could give their own testimony, in full, in their own words.  Everyone watching would be able to hear the testimony.  In addition, some of the questions and comments sent via email and twitter could be answered during the meeting.

The Chief Financial Officer will be making a presentation on the lump sum budget.  Without real-time participation, no one would be able to ask a question about that presentation. Testimony sent in ahead of time could not be amended to include comments or questions about that or any other business taking place during the meeting.

We have also asked that all non-essential Items be withdrawn for now, and that each Item Description include a sentence explaining why it is essential and must be voted on this month. Thanks to the Board for already withdrawing Item 31.

In this difficult time, it is important that the public be able to participate in the democratic process.  The Board must make a good faith effort, using the technology available, to include the public in this week’s public meeting. We appreciate being part of the conversation. We look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

Lisa Haver

Karel Kilimnik

Statement from APPS: How Will Public Be Able to Participate at March 26 Board of Education Action Meeting?

The COV-19 virus has turned our lives upside down. Class and race matter little to this germ, but we must work to get resources to those who most need them in the face of this potentially fatal disease. The District struggles to ensure that students are fed while schools are closed, for how long no one knows. Support from every level of government is crucial as we face a looming economic and social upheaval. The Philadelphia Board of Education is a governmental body that controls a $3.2 billion budget and whose decisions affect the lives and futures of thousands of children.

APPS members expect the Board of Education to inform its constituents of its actions and intentions. Schools will need resources when they open, but the contracts and funding for those resources have to be approved months in advance. Thus the Board will have to vote on essential items now or in the near future. When it does, the public must be able to observe and participate. That participation will take a different form, but the Board must make the best effort to make sure the public can be present, even if virtually. APPS has made a number of suggestions to the Board about how to have the public interact at its March 26 Action Meeting. And as steadfast observers and participants in all meetings and hearings held by the Board of Education, APPS has reviewed the current Board Agenda for the upcoming Action meeting on Thursday March 26.

Due to the governor’s restrictions on public gatherings, the public will not be present at the March 26 Action Meeting.  The Board has indicated that it is considering holding some type of online meeting. Because of the limited nature of virtual meetings, the Board should only vote on essential items. All other business should be tabled until the community can observe and comment in person. The current Item Summary includes a number of items that do not require immediate action by the Board.

We understand that the Board is in the process of figuring out  how to hold the meeting. Every Item on the agenda must include, along with the usual description, an explanation of why the Item must be voted on now and cannot be tabled. One example is Item 31, Contract with Various Vendors for Professional Learning Support $2,000,000.  This proposed contract with Schoolkit was tabled at the February Action meeting, with the promise of further discussion at the March Student Achievement and Support Committee meeting, now cancelled. This non-essential contract should be withdrawn until the public can weigh in at a fully public meeting.

Representative governments cannot, and should not, come to a halt, even in times of crisis. The Board needs to arrange a way for the public to not only view the meeting but present testimony as well. We have made these suggestions to the Board:

  • Only essential Items voted on this month. All other Items tabled.
  • Take questions via email or twitter during the livestreamed meeting. If the questions pertains to a specific Item, read the question or comment just prior to the meeting so that Board members can answer before voting.
  • Have staff members read the testimony of public participants. Testimony sent in to the Board should be considered oral testimony, not written testimony. Testimony of Items should be read before the Board commences voting.
  • The Board should inform the public of its decisions and actions by posting a banner on the homepage of the District website.

APPS members look forward to attending and participating in this Thursday’s meeting.