Eyes on the SRC – October 13th, 2016

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by Diane Payne
October 23, 2016

As we continue our fight to stop the ongoing devastation of our public schools, we need to remind ourselves that the 5-member School Reform Commission is a governmental body responsible for a $2.6 billion annual budget which affects the educational conditions of 130,000 Philadelphia children. Yet this body is accountable to no one for its decisions, nor is there any watchdog group (other than APPS) which monitors its actions or spending priorities. (We got nowhere when we met with the Committee of 70 in August.) The residents and taxpayers of this city have no effective voice in this. We are subject to taxation, yet we have no representation. We cannot vote the SRC out. Pennsylvanians in the other 499 school districts across the state have board members accountable to the voters. Those in Harrisburg have deemed us not worthy or able to choose our own school board. The people of Philadelphia continue to be disenfranchised.

We now find ourselves at a crossroads which could change all of that. Two members of the SRC tendered their resignations in October; one more term is set to expire in January 2017.  Two of these seats will be filled by Mayor Kenney; there is no public hearing or approval process by City Council. Governor Wolf’s nominee must be approved by the State Senate, but there is no requirement for public hearings or public testimony. How’s that for democracy? Advocacy groups across the city are calling for the mayor and governor to appoint commissioners who are committed to abolishing this failed takeover. City Council President Darrell Clarke and Councilwomen Helen Gym, Jannie Blackwell, and Blondell Reynolds-Brown have added their voices to those calling for a return to local control.

Both Governor Wolf and Mayor Kenney campaigned on promises to abolish the SRC. Now Kenney is saying it is “not the right time”. To which advocates for public education reply: If not now…when?  When is the right time for the people of this city to be treated with the respect and afforded the same rights as those in every other county in this state?

SRC Chair Remarks

October’s agenda began with prepared remarks from Chairwoman Neff regarding her resignation.  She urged her fellow commissioners to vote on the numerous charter school renewals which have been postponed, without explanation, for six months.  Last Spring, the Charter School Office strongly recommended non-renewal for Aspira Stetson, Aspira Olney, Universal Audenried, and Universal Vare. The CSO provided extensive lists of reasons for each school, citing academic, managerial and financial issues. Since April, however, the SRC has openly tabulated votes and seized upon various parliamentary rules to avoid taking action on these resolutions.  This inaction serves to protect the special interests of the Aspira and Universal organizations despite their failing records.

In addition, Chair Neff admonished the district and the PFT to sit down and negotiate a new contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.  She noted the harm that not having a contract for four years has done to our school’s workforce and to the children they serve. Unfortunately, Neff told those present that PFT members are not facing “financial realities”. Admonishing both sides to sit down and negotiate is fair.  Admonishing one side to do something different when all of the information is not available is not fair. It is puzzling that Ms. Neff, who has consistently voted against new charters because of the financial harm they would cause, did not address this financial reality in her remarks.

Bully Pulpit

Commissioner Green did not disappoint those who count on him to bash the teachers and school professionals of the PFT at every meeting. He consistently fails to mention that the teachers have to work harder each year to make sure the children do not suffer the consequences of the failed policies and practices of the SRC and the Hite administration: inadequate resources; instability caused by yearly turnarounds of neighborhood schools; staffing vacancies; overcrowding after closure of over 25 schools; the debacle resulting from the Source4Teachers outsourcing scheme.

This time, Green stepped over the line. He violated long-honored protocol by revealing details discussed in contract negotiations. He justified this by saying he wanted to make sure that PFT members were being told the truth, clearly implying that PFT leadership is intentionally lying to its members. Are these actions considered part of good-faith negotiations? Or, as some have asked, is Green deliberately trying to sabotage those negotiations? His disdain for teachers in our public schools calls into question his ability to act on behalf of them and other members of the public in a fair and impartial manner.

PSSA Results

Dr. Hite gave remarks on the latest PSSA results, indicating that across the district, scores held steady or increased. We will have to take Hite at his word for now. Trying to find and understand this data is very difficult on the user-unfriendly district website.

APPS Testimony

Five APPS members testified about the SRC’s questionable spending and policy priorities: Karel Kilimnik, Diane Payne, Deborah Grill, Rich Liuzzi, and Lynda Rubin.  [To see their testimony or read their transcripts, go to APPSphilly.net.] These testimonials continue to shine a light on the failed fad reforms the SRC promotes and the loss of democracy and lack of SRC accountability. Questions were asked, but as usual, answers were not forthcoming.

Drive-by Destabilization

Dr. Hite stated in a recent news article, as he did at an earlier SRC meeting, that at least three schools per year would be identified for closure.  Last month, APPS members Karel Kilimnik and Rich Liuzzi asked the SRC commissioners and Dr. Hite to disclose what schools were on the list to be closed.  Neither the commissioners nor Dr. Hite would answer the question.

In the September editions of Eyes on the SRC and Ears on the SRC, APPS drew attention to Resolution A-3, which authorized a contract with The Cambridge Team, a private company, “to develop, manage, and execute a comprehensive School Quality Review process, to gather data and develop qualitative reports on school quality and to engage the school community and gather community input, for an amount not to exceed $200,000, for the period commencing September 16, 2016 through June 30, 2017.”  APPS questioned whether this was yet another outsourcing of district services whose intent was to add to the list of list of privatized or destabilized schools.  October’s SRC meeting gave the answer: Yes. The Hite administration announced that eleven “Priority Schools” would be reconfigured in some way, with the process to be overseen by Cambridge. Community meetings were scheduled, with less than one week’s notification, for the last two weeks in October. Hite indicated that he would have a presentation at November’s meeting. Is there a reason why the district’s options will be explained after the community meetings are over? Is this a fast track to success—or a fast tract to more churn and privatization?

Hite’s claim that these schools are not achieving “in spite of the district’s investments” in them flies in the face of reality: that schools have been struggling to survive under the austerity budgets imposed upon them for the past three years. The menu of options for the targeted schools include merging with a nearby “high-quality” school, contracting with an unnamed private company, instituting an “evidence-based” plan; joining the district’s Turnaround Network; “restarting” the school after “major staff changes”. Although few details were given, it is clear that most of these options necessitate forced transfers of teachers. When asked by an APPS speaker to identify the extra resources given to these eleven schools, Hite had no answer.

Charter Renewal Games Continue

Mastery charter renewal resolutions for Clymer, Gratz and Shoemaker (Resolutions SRC -1 -2, and -3), were withdrawn just prior to the meeting—again.  The company is well its way to creating its own Mastery Northwest district.  The appearance and disappearance of these resolutions for the past six months is done without explanation. Emails obtained by APPS from a Right-to-Know request last Spring clearly show the cozy relationship between Mastery donors and Commissioners Green and Simms.

What we witnessed with Resolutions SRC-4 and -5, renewals for Aspira Olney and Aspira Stetson, was a shocking reminder of how irresponsible and unaccountable the SRC has become. First, there was no text under the title of the resolutions. The public was not allowed to know what the SRC intended to vote on. Commissioner Houston made the formal motion, and Chair Neff called for a second. Neither Green nor Simms would second the motion, and it was tabled for the sixth month. This prompted calls from the audience of “Shame!” and “Do your job!” Green and Simms continue to use their positions to protect the interests of Aspira and ignore those of the community. (Jimenez once again abstained because of a conflict.)

And where, we ask again, have the renewal resolutions for Universal Audenried and Universal Vare gone? The Charter School Office strongly recommended non-renewal for these schools also. They have not been posted since April, and there has been no explanation or update. We can only assume, based on the SRC’s history with Aspira, that similar secret negotiations are taking place with Universal. CEO Kenny Gamble wields considerable political influence in the city. Chair Neff’s plea to her fellow commissioners to deal with these issues fell on deaf ears.

The rest of the resolutions were unanimously approved with one exception.   Chair Neff voted against Resolution A-3, a $131,000 contract for new principal screening with The New Teacher Project. TNTP is a well-known national pro-privatization organization. [Please see Deborah Grill’s October testimony on the topic of TNTP.]  At 440, it seems that the instilling the correct ideology takes precedence over training in pedagogy and administration.

Resolution A-5 approved grants from the Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP) for $116,630 and $54,434 to support Roxborough High School and Hill-Freedman World Academy, respectively. Will the usual strings be attached to these donations from the corporate reformers at PSP?

Prosecution without Justification

Because of the advocacy of APPS members and the strong support of her school’s staff, a resolution to begin termination proceedings against an elementary teacher was withdrawn. Beware district employees: there is a dangerous practice in place at 440—moving to terminate employees without any evidence or investigation. This teacher was summoned by DHS to explain what happened to a student at her school. She was never told that she was the subject of any investigation. The school district received a letter which stated that there was an “indication” of abuse against this student. They conducted no hearing, and no charges were filed against the teacher. To this day, she has not been informed by DHS or by the district of any charges. She has had to hire a lawyer, and has been sitting in the “rubber room” since September. The Hite administration’s policy seems to be: First the execution, then the trial! This incident serves to remind us why it is so important for teachers and school professionals to have a contract which includes clear due process provisions.