Board Allows Questionable New Covid Protocols

Ears on the Board of Education:  August 18, 2022

by Lynda Rubin and Deborah Grill

Parents, students, educators and community members who came to the Board’s August action meeting found themselves relegated to seats halfway back in the auditorium. The Board had set up two rows of long tables, covered with blue cloth and stretching the entire width of the room, to seat 440 staff and assistant superintendents, who in previous meetings sat in the first few rows of public seating.  Members of the public, separated by this moat of blue tables, found it even more difficult to see and hear the Board members. 

Seven Board members attended in person:  President Joyce Wilkerson, Vice-President Letticia Egea-Hinton, Julia Danzy, Mallory Fix Lopez, Lisa Salley, Reginald Streater, and Sarah Ashley-Andrews.  Cecelia Thompson and Chau Wing Lam attended remotely. Wilkerson congratulated Streater for being appointed one of eleven USA Justice Fellows by the Eisenhower Fellowship; he will travel the U S and abroad to study racial disparities in education. 

Board Allows Questionable New Covid Protocols 
Dr. Watlington cited the District’s new Covid protocols, including mandatory masking for students and staff for the first ten days of school.  Masking will be “optional” after that, but it was not made clear who will decide whether students and staff in each school must wear a mask. District Chief Medical Officer Dr. Kendra McDow gave an update on District actions and decisions about Covid practices for this school year.  Watlington and other central office staff stated throughout the meeting that parents could find these and other slides on the District’s website, but no specifics were given. Parents in District listening sessions have complained about how difficult it is to navigate the website.  Fix Lopez asked about specific protocols for the twenty-one schools still without nurses and about the additional 10-day paid sick days implemented last year for staff who contracted Covid and had to quarantine. If a teacher had used any or all of their Covid leave during the last school year, would this additional leave be re-implemented? Chief Talent Officer Larisa Shambaugh acknowledged that new hires and previous staff who hadn’t used it would have the 10-day Covid leave, but that those who had contracted Covid last year and used the extra sick days would not have any additional sick days. That is, teachers or staff persons who contract Covid this year—much more likely if there is no mask mandate—will not be paid for staying home to recover and to prevent spreading the virus to their students. Fix Lopez expressed concern that returning employees, especially hourly staff, could find themselves not receiving sick pay. Both Fix Lopez and Thompson were alarmed about the District’s not restoring the 10-day paid Covid leave for those contracting it a second time. Thompson asked if this could be overturned.  Dr. Watlington’s non-committal response about being “sensitive to anyone losing pay through no fault of their own” did not answer their questions. Wilkerson then stepped in to say that union contract reviews could be considered but no motion was made to do that.  Actually, Thompson or any Board member could have made a motion to change the protocol policy and passed it that night, but they did not do so.

Board Members Salley, Fix Lopez and Thompson asked about staffing fill rates including teachers and bus drivers. Salley voiced concern about pulling other school staff such as Teacher Leaders, to cover vacancies, so that the school would not have the services of a Teacher Leader.  Thompson then asked if the District has enough bus drivers. Shambaugh responded that information is handled by the outsourced bus companies. When Thompson asked whether sufficient supports will be available for students with IEPs, Thompson was told that not all paraprofessional positions will be filled, but that the District was “actively hiring”. 

Board members ask important questions but often are satisfied with incomplete answers about whether all schools will be able to manage shortages without serious effect on student learning both at the start of and throughout the school year.

Board Members Appear Baffled by Charter Failures
The Board’s discussion around the pending renewals and the crisis at two Universal Renaissance charters was remarkable for the Board’s seeming ignorance of how charters work, how often they are evaluated, why one Renaissance charter has been operating without an agreement for an entire 5-year term, and what they should do about it.  Questions were asked as if the Board were just bystanders, with Charter Schools Acting Charter Chief Peng Chao breaking the bad news gently.

The three charter schools up for renewal votes at this meeting: Belmont Elementary Charter (K-8) which does not meet financial standards; Global Leadership Academy at Huey (K-8) a Renaissance charter which does not meet organizational standards; and Multicultural Academy which meets two of the three standards.  All are being recommended for “Renewal with Conditions”. The Board had no questions about these renewals. 

Chao narrated his presentation (available to the public neither online nor at the meeting) during which he informed the Board that one Renaissance school, H. R. Edmunds,  had been operating since 2017 without a renewal agreement. The school, operated by String Theory Inc., signed its original charter agreement in 2012 when they took over Edmunds but refused to sign in 2017 because they objected to certain language. When Board members asked why there had been no action taken now or since 2017, Chao said the District’s  policy has been to initiate action toward non-renewal only after the charter operator signs the renewal agreement.  He said that String Theory was justifying its failure to improve the school as a Renaissance school by saying that Edmunds had not been performing adequately before they took over. Streater asked, “So the school is contradicting their own mandate for ten years?” Salley asked how near the Charter School Office was in coming to an agreement with String Theory; Chao responded “not close”.  Chao then said that they are now working with the school’s individual Board, not String Theory; none of the Board members asked why.  Wilkerson suggested offering a 1-year renewal since Philadelphia has that option. Fix Lopez asked about District options if they refused to sign a 1-year renewal; Wilkerson said that the Board could move toward non-renewal. Chao promised to have an update by October. None of the Board members questioned the fact that charter negotiations are conducted in private by the CSO even as they refer to charters as “public charter schools”.  APPS has asked the Board several times to hold public renewal hearings. Lisa Haver asked in her testimony how Board members were ignorant of the fact that a Renaissance charter school was operating without a current charter, especially those who have been on the Board since 2018. 

The Board voted years ago, after extensive legal hearings, not to renew the charter agreements with both Universal Bluford and Universal Daroff after several years of failure to meet standards in several areas. Universal protested, saying that the non-renewals were actually the result of racial discrimination at the District, in particular at the Charter Schools Office. The independent hearing examiner upheld the Board’s decision.  Universal vowed to appeal and to retain control. Now Universal is walking away from both schools.   The PA Charter Appeals Board (CAB) subsequently voted to uphold the District’s non-renewal decisions. Why has the Board not summoned Universal CEO Penny Nixon to come before the Board and explain what Universal intends to do to protect the interests of their students and families?  This matter is reminiscent of the 2014 closing of the two Walter D. Palmer charter schools mid-year, which could have been prevented by the SRC and the Hite administration.  Chao told the Board that the CSO is now communicating with the individual boards of the schools. He noted that Universal had made a commitment to these schools’ communities when they took them over to improve the schools. There are currently significant educational concerns, including twenty-five teacher vacancies at Daroff and seventeen at Bluford.  This is not the first time Universal has abandoned its charter schools during the school year.  In 2017 Universal deserted three of its charter schools in Milwaukee. 

APPS has raised the issue of why the Board continues to renew substandard Renaissance charters even after they fail to make the progress they promised. Charter organizations often cite the disruption to the schools if the District were to sever their charter agreements and take the schools back, overlooking the fact of their own hostile takeovers of neighborhood schools. Charter companies, including Universal, take the position that they have a right to continue, even expand, despite lack of progress. 

District Parent Calls on Board to Cancel $450K Consulting Contract 
Eleven of the twenty-six adults registered testified to protest any mask mandate in schools, one calling it “child abuse”. Parent Stephanie King, however, spoke about the need to continue safe Covid  protocols in order to protect our children. Her daughter stood with her holding a sign that said: “I’m tired of everyone having Covid at school!” 

Two speakers urged the Board to expand enrollment at Inquiry charter school with the addition of a middle school. Michael Karp is the board chair at both Inquiry and Belmont charter schools; Belmont CEO Jennifer Faustman has been appointed to the PA Charter Appeal Board, which has been seen by some as a conflict of interest.   

Parent Stacy Mandel spoke about the poor reputation of Shawn Josephs and Associates, the Nashville firm the District has hired for $450,000 to form a transition team for Superintendent Watlington. Mandel asked why the Board never responded to Nashville School Board member Amy Frogge’s letter to the Board concerning Joseph’s firing from his Nashville superintendent position for corruption and other issues.

APPS co-founder Lisa Haver told the Board that there was little chance that they would do anything other than renew all three charters on the agenda. She cited the political power exerted by both Belmont and GLA CEOs in both City Hall and Harrisburg. Haver questioned how Belmont board chair Michael Karp, a prominent businessperson and member of the PICA (Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority) board, could make decisions about the City’s budget but couldn’t meet basic financial standards at his charter school.  APPS member Barbara Dowdall again urged the Board to restore school libraries with certified teacher librarians. She read from a recent Philadelphia Magazine article citing the lack of school libraries as one of the worst things about Philadelphia.  APPS member Cheri Micheau, an expert in English Language Learners, raised the lack of necessary support services for students who are learning English as they learn curricula.  APPS member Lynda Rubin cited an Inquirer article about a parent suing the District because her child was abused by other students on a bus that did not have the required bus aide. Rubin said that it is the District’s responsibility to ensure the physical and emotional health of students at all times under the District’s care. Behaviors and adverse experiences have a long-lasting effect on students’ sense of security and on their current and future character. 

Goals and Guardrails 
The Goals and Guardrails data analysis began at 7:15 PM and ended at 9 PM.

Board Renews More Substandard Charters
Voting on the Action Items began at 9 PM, five hours into the meeting. Thompson asked questions on most of the items. If the answers are for the benefit of the public and not just for her own edification, Thompson should urge the Board, as APPS has, to move the voting up before the Goals and Guardrails. Items were divided into the following categories for voting: Personnel, Finance, Operations, Academic Supports, Information Technology, Charter Renewals and Consent Agenda items. 

Item 5, Contract with KJR Consulting for Professional Development for $350,000:  Withdrawn by staff. APPS had raised questions on social media about another high-priced professional development contract for 440 staff. 

Personnel Items 6 through 9: Passed unanimously. 

Thompson questioned why resignations outnumbered retirement and asked what the District could do to keep teachers.

Charter Renewal Items 35, 36, 37:  Passed unanimously. 

Lisa Haver after her testimony stated APPS’ objections to the Board’s voting on items that did not include the full agreement of the renewals. That constitutes votes taken in secret, violations of the PA Sunshine Act. 

Finance Items 11 and 12: Passed 8-0. 

After consulting privately with General Counsel Lynn Rauch, Egea-Hinton left the auditorium after Wilkerson called for the vote but before the voting took place. Rauch explained the 8-0 vote saying that Egea-Hinton had “stepped away”. 

Salley asked about the  scope and services of the law firm and assessment firms in Items 11 and 12. CFO Munson explained that these firms assist the District in its appeal of city property assessments and has so far recovered $16.2 million more in tax revenues for the District.

Item 33: Passed unanimously.  Chau Wing  had questions concerning the temporary workers’ access to District financial information. 

Operations Items 14 through 16, 18, 19, 22 through 24:  Passed unanimously. Thompson requested evaluation reports on the work done by these various contractors and asked whether or not there was a cost benefit analysis if using temporary workers in place of hiring permanent workers.

Academic Support Items 27 through 29: Passed unanimously. 

Information Technology Items 31, 32: Passed unanimously.

Consent Agenda Items 1 through 3, 10, 13, 17, 20, 21, 25, 26, 30, 34: Passed unanimously. Item 4 passed 8-1 with Thompson dissenting.     

The meeting adjourned 10:13 PM after 6 hours and 13 minutes.  

Next Board Action Meeting: Thursday, September 22, 2022 at 4 PM.