Student Achievement and Support Committee Report: May 16, 2019

by Diane Payne

It is tedious to have to begin every report with the same lament about the Board’s failure to adequately engage the public. Little information was provided prior to this meeting. There were four staff presentations; none of that information was available prior to the meeting. It is impossible to adequately prepare to speak when you have no detailed information. It wasn’t until arriving at the meeting that the public knew which charter school topics were on the agenda.

Again, no documents were provided except for an outline of the topics and the names (no text) of upcoming Action Items. In order to understand the votes which involve spending millions of tax dollars, you must go to the District website, and via multiple clicks, access descriptions of the Action Items online. APPS has repeatedly cited the lack of transparency in a process in which information is only available to members of the public who bring their computers to the meeting–there is no way to read the documents on a phone– and is difficult even then. Crucial information is not provided at the committee meetings nor at the action meetings. It is a roadblock to full public participation. When will the Board fix this?

The meeting began with a statement that there were 39 registered speakers–half from Tech Friere Charter–but the committee had a hard end time of 7:30. Speakers would have to be cut off by that end time. When 7:30 came, a number of speakers, including some APPS members, were in fact not permitted to deliver their prepared remarks. Parent Advocate Cecelia Thompson, who did not get to speak, was the only person slated to speak on the Special Education Presentation; she should have been moved up to the front of the line.  Despite the number of speakers and attendees, this meeting was held in the Board committee room; the atrium was used for overflow. No explanation was given as to why the meeting could not be held in the auditorium. How engaged can members of the public feel sitting outside watching on a screen instead of being in the room?

Present: Co-chairs Angela McIver and Chris McGinley, Committee members Maria McColgan, Mallory Fix Lopez, and Julia Danzy.  President Joyce Wilkerson, Board members Leticia Egea-Hinton and Julia Dany, and Student Representatives Alfredo Pratico and Julia Frank were in attendance.

Minutes of the April 11, 2019 meeting were approved.

District staff gave four presentations: Strawberry Mansion High School (SMHS) Update, Special Education Programs and Initiatives, CSI and ATSI School Improvement Plans, and Charter Schools update. (You can view the entire video of this meeting as well as access the agenda and PowerPoint presentations by going to the Board of Education page of the District website.)

Brian McCracken, finishing his first year as Strawberry Mansion principal, gave his report. Sixty-four students selected SMHS for the incoming freshman class, compared to only four last year.  At the time, the school’s future was in doubt, which certainly affected new enrollment. Due to the District’s disruption of this school’s enrollment, there is a gap resulting in no sophomore class. Next year, the school will house the incoming freshman, plus the juniors and seniors, for a total enrollment of 156 students. The community fought hard for this school to remain a neighborhood high school, not a space for edu-vendors.  We hope the District will continue to support this effort and look forward to seeing enrollment grow.

The Special Education Report was delivered by Chief Academic Officer Malika Savoy-Brooks and Deputy of Specialized Services Natalie Hess. Two important areas were transition services for 18 to 21 year olds and the Extended School Year (ESY). There was a video and discussion about the transition services, but it wasn’t until Board Members Fix Lopez and McIver asked direct questions about the numbers of students being served that it was clear that the total number was 18 students in two different programs. When asked how many potential students there were, Hess said she would have to get back to the Board with that information.  Question: when staff sends that information to the Board members, when is it made public?

McIver asked how the office chooses programs such as the Applied Behavior Analysis Program referred to in the presentation. Hess stated that this program was chosen because it is a national research-based program. No further information was given about this program.

When Danzy asked how many partners are involved in this transition program, only one partner was mentioned, PHL Airport, with a caveat that they are always looking for more.

Finally, when questions came up from Board members about staffing, Savoy-Brooks stated that schools with a longstanding vacancy were given priority attention in the hiring process. What was not addressed:  does the Office of Specialized Services look into WHY there are longstanding vacancies in some schools or networks? Are these vacancies because of the disconnect between 440 PowerPoints and what is happening on the ground?

The Comprehensive School Improvement (CSI) and the Additional Targeted Support Improvement (ATSI) presentation was delivered by Tanya Wolford, Chief of Evaluation, Research, and Accountability. She stated that schools are in the middle of this process. All School Improvement plans can be found online; no link was provided. Actually, hard copies of the Improvement Plans are provided in each school building for anyone who wants one. Yet no hard copies of the details of the millions spent each month by the District are available. Even the SRC provided hard copies with details of each item.

Director Christina Grant gave an “update” on charter matters that omitted most of the information about the performance of charters up for renewal. In addition to the renewals, two schools submitted revised applications after being denied in February on their initial application: Joan Myers Brown Academy: A String Theory School and Tacony Academy Charter School at St. Vincent: An American Paradigm School. The Board will vote on Tacony at the May 30th Action Meeting (Action Item 79). McIver announced that the Board will be voting on the JMB/String Theory School revised application at a special meeting on June 13th at 10:00 a.m.  As of May 28, 12 days later, there is no notice of this special meeting, or the change in voting date (originally June 27) for this charter, anywhere on the District website.

Included in the Board’s reasons for denying the two applications in February were: 1) both organizations have charters in the system which are failing to achieve academic standards and 2) both have failed to sign new charters on their existing schools. The big business of charter schools means a relentless quest for more, no matter the harm to public school students and no matter their lackluster performance. Money and power are the driving force, not providing a quality education to Philadelphia’s children.

Action Item 75, Ad Prima: the CSO has recommended for a 5 year renewal. Ad Prima’s 2016/17 SPR is at 32% for Academic Achievement, placing them in the Watch category. It is becoming increasingly clear that contrary to the claims at the onset of the charter school movement, they are far from being academic saviors.

Action Item 76, Belmont Charter School Renewal is on this list for a vote, but there is no Belmont information in the CSO PowerPoint presentation. At the Finance and Facilities Committee meeting on the same day, it was disclosed that Belmont wants to buy the building it occupies.

In 1998, the District, under Superintendent David Hornbeck,  gave control of Belmont Elementary School to the politically connected real estate developer Michael Karp.  Three years later, CEO Paul Vallas gave Karp control of another West Philadelphia school. If you weren’t at the F&F meeting you wouldn’t know that this is being proposed. Again, no community outreach, no public debate, and no inclusion on this PowerPoint.

Belmont Elementary Charter has been operating with an unsigned charter since 2017 when the CSO recommended a 5-year renewal with conditions. Belmont CEO Karp told the SRC that he would not be signing the new charter and would not accept any of the conditions the CSO had included, even though Belmont had failed to meet basic academic standards. These conditions were not additional requirements, simply a means for Belmont to address their many deficiencies. Belmont’s 2016/17 Academic Achievement score of 10% places them in Intervene; their 16% Overall score also places them in Intervene.  Now the CSO is recommending a 5-year renewal–what happened to the conditions?

Now that Karp and Belmont’s board want the building, they are ready to sign the charter. How is this beneficial to the District and to the public? Is Karp just expanding his real estate holdings? Why are we supporting a real estate developer’s quest for more property? And why is the Board renewing a school with achievement scores in the Intervene category?

Action Item 77, Esperanza Charter School: CSO recommends a 5-year renewal. Their 2016/17 Academic SPR is 5% for the middle school and 10% for the high school placing both in the Intervene category. Again, not an academic savior.

Action Item 78, Mariana Bracetti Charter School: CSO recommends a 5-year renewal. Their 2016/17 SPR is 16% for the elementary school placing them in Intervene; 27% for the high school placing them in Watch. This school is also asking for an enrollment increase. Why are Charter Schools renewed if they are not in the Reinforce or Model category, and why would ANY enrollment increase be granted?   Not on the agenda, at least not yet, is the Amendment for enrollment expansion that Bracetti submitted and has been recommended for approval by the CSO–one year after Bracetti got an enrollment expansion from the SRC.

Despite receiving a “Does Not Meet” academic rating, the CSO recommends a 1-year renewal for TECH Freire. The CSO says that there is enough data to make a prudent recommendation on a 5-year renewal. TECH supporters at the meeting argued that they should be granted a 5-year renewal immediately no matter the current facts and data.

In addition, TECH Freire has submitted a Multiple Charter School Organization (MCSO) request. This is untried and untested new obstacle, straight out of Harrisburg, would allow the charter organization to  combine their schools into a single entity. For all intents and purposes, charters would be creating their own districts within the public school system. Harrisburg pols will not adequately fund our schools, yet they continually burden Districts with more and more Charter School demands.  This will be voted on at a special meeting on June 13th.

Universal Audenried, which has been in limbo since the SRC voted to table its renewal in 2016,  is recommended for a 5-year “retroactive” renewal with a surrender clause if the school fails to perform.  The SRC gave control of Audenried to Kenny Gamble’s Universal schools in 2011 as part of its Renaissance charter program. By 2016 it was clear that Universal had failed to turn this high school around; it failed to meet standards in all categories of the renewal evaluation. The SRC ignored the CSO’s recommendation for non-renewal and tabled the vote indefinitely. Universal Charters was investigated and cited for several financial improprieties by the City Controller’s office in 2016, and federal officials confiscated documents from Universal CEO Rahim Islam in 2017.

Three years later, with no updated evaluation, the Board is now moving to renew Universal’s charter at Audenried. Why? No reasons were given, and none of the Board members asked for any.  So the students in this failing school are failed by all the adults around them. The Board had Audenried agree to a “surrender clause” after 2 years if the school fails to achieve. But that surrender clause has never been tested. APPS  will not be surprised if Universal (or Memphis Street Charter or Richard Allen charter or Vare charter, all granted surrender-clause renewals) decides not to honor the agreement and files an appeal.

(Although Audenried appears in the CSO report, it does not appear on the Board’s  May 30th Action Item agenda. Has it disappeared again?)

Finance and Facilities Committee Meeting: May 16, 2019

by Lisa Haver

The ongoing problem of poor acoustics in the Committee room has not been resolved. Board members and staff often do not speak into their mics, despite repeated requests from the audience, and do not project their voices so that the members of the public in attendance can hear. Of course, the fact that the meeting is held at 10 AM means there are not many members of the public able to attend.

Present:  Co-chairs Leticia Egea-Hinton and Lee Huang, Member Joyce Wilkerson. Member Wayne Walker participated via phone. Board member also attended and participated.

April 11 2019 Minutes were approved.

Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson gave a brief overview of next year’s budget, to be voted on by the Board at the May 30 Action Meeting.  Monson presented information on: the twenty schools in which air conditioning will be installed, charter costs, the revised 5-year plan, and the adoption of the levy of taxes by City Council at the June 30 Board Action Meeting.

Lee Huang asked when the Board will receive the ERP update (there was no explanation of what ERP stands for or what the program includes). Monson referred to a staff presentation from a few months ago and said that it will be voted on by the Board in May.

Transportation items were presented by Chief Operations Officer Danielle Floyd. There was a review of costs for both district and charter schools. Joyce Wilkerson asked about the rate paid to drivers and whether those were consistent for all companies. Floyd responded that all transportation vendors recently received a 3% increase (one received 6% because they have more routes) from the District but that the District has no control over what companies pay their drivers. Wilkerson asked whether the District imposed a minimum wage; Floyd responded “No”.  Leticia Egea-Hinton said that she has heard many complaints about poor service and problematic interactions between drivers and students.

Huang said that in the future information about woman/minority-owned businesses should be included in presentations and whether those groups are being sought.

Two proposed sales, recommended for approval by the COO, will be brought before the Board in the near future. The first is KIPP’s request to purchase the former Whittier Elementary building at 3001 N. 27th Street  in the Allegheny West neighborhood for $775, 000. Whittier was closed in its centenary year by the SRC in 2013. The building has been vacant since then. KIPP wants to move grades 5-8 from their current location at 2539 N. 16th Street, which is the former Stanton Elementary, sold to KIPP in 2014.  These grades are actually co-located at the other KIPP school there. CSO staffer Peng Chao presented current academic information about this KIPP school, although it was not stated that the sale was contingent on current academic performance. Chao stated that in its last evaluation the school was assigned an “Approaches Standard” rating in academics. Chao also stated that KIPP would have to submit an Amendment Request in order to move the students from one location to another.  Wilkerson pointed out that the Board should not “put the cart before the horse”, that is, approve the sale before the Board approved an amendment for relocation. Floyd responded that because of other legal considerations the sale would probably not take place until October 2019. McGinley said that did not change the order of the votes. Chao said that the CSO could work to bring the Amendment evaluation and the sale into alignment. Chao said that the CSO has “already been in conversation with KIPP” on the issue.

The second District property on the block is the former Belmont Elementary at 4030 Brown Street  in West Philadelphia which has been occupied by grades 1-8 of Belmont Charter since 2002 (Kindergarten is in another Karp-run building; grades 9 and 10 in yet another).  Former District CEO Paul Vallas turned over control of Belmont to real estate developer Michael Karp in 2002; Karp is Chairman of the Board of three schools in the Belmont network. (Karp attended the Committee meeting briefly but did not speak.)  Belmont would continue to operate in the building, but the District would have no control over any lease agreements for other programs, such as a day-care center. A yet-unnamed non-profit, to be created by the charter’s present board, would be the official purchaser of the building; that non-profit would lease it to the charter school. The current sale price is $2.8 million; the District would net only $1 million because of debt attached to the building.  McGinley asked how debt was accrued on the building. CFO Monson replied that bonds were issued for repairs on the building but did not specify whether that was after the time the charter moved in. Where did that debt come from if Belmont has been occupying it for 17 years? How much has Belmont been paying for maintenance and repairs, if at all? McGinley asked whether the District had listed the building for sale prior to this; Floyd responded that the District had not. The Belmont board had approached the District to buy it a couple of years ago, but since Belmont had not signed its new charter in 2017 (citing objections to conditions being placed on them) the District did not consider the offer.  Chao then informed the Board that Belmont was now willing to sign after two years; he also cited some data that said Belmont, which had failed to meet academic standards in the 2017 evaluation, had improved in the past two years. Floyd said she expected the closing for the sale to take place August 2019. None of the Board members asked how much Belmont was paying the District in annual rent, if any.

One question that did not come up: Is it in the best interest of the District and its stakeholders to sell this public building to a private organization, especially a charter organization?  Have the various District departments been working with Karp to sell his organization the building just because he asked? Karp is a wealthy developer and was appointed to serve on the PICA (Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority), a pseudo-governmental agency created to oversee the City’s finances.

Karp told the SRC at its April 2019 meeting that Belmont would not be signing its new charter because he objected to the District imposing any conditions, which are actually notifications that the charter must correct any academic or financial deficiencies.  Belmont was recommended for renewal despite the fact that it received a “Does Not Meet” rating in Academics, that it failed to meet the standard in both Organization and Finances, and that the school was cited for several deficiencies, including: barriers to enrollment, failure to apprise students and parents of due process rights in disciplinary matters, Sunshine Act violations, absence of ethics statements from Belmont board members, low staff retention, food safety issues, inadequate numbers of certified and highly qualified teachers.  The CSO has not issued an updated Renewal Evaluation, so it is unclear what information the Board is looking at when considering both the renewal and the proposed sale.

The sale of both of these properties is disturbing as the public school system loses more assets to the private sector. The Board should consider the ramifications before approving.  The Whittier sale is easier to understand as the District had the building on the market for years. But the Board should reject the Belmont sale. No reason was given except that the Belmont board, led by Michael Karp, wants to buy it. The Board must look out for the interests of its constituents, not developer/charter operators looking to expand their real estate holdings in gentrifying neighborhoods.

Speaker Cecelia Thompson told the Committee that she was confused about the Belmont sale. Thompson lives near the school and is an active member of the Belmont Civic Association, but this is the first she is hearing about this sale. When she asked why the community has not been asked about this, COO Floyd responded that the building would continue to operate as an educational facility.  Thompson said the neighborhood is poor and predominately African-American and she wondered whether this kind of transaction would take place in a more affluent area without the blessing of the residents. Thompson also asked why the Board would be approving more funding for outside legal firms when the District has its own in-house legal department.

When I spoke, I pointed out that there were too many unanswered questions about the Belmont sale. I also cited information from the most recent evaluation showing the poor ratings in all major categories. I told the Board that approving a sale to a non-profit would mean the creation of one more circular lease agreement, a common method for charter investors to profit from nominally “non-profit” charters.

Policy Committee Meeting: May 16, 2019

by Lisa Haver

In addition to the ongoing acoustic problems, the Policy Committee continues its practice of providing no copies of the policies under consideration to members of the public in attendance.  APPS members have told the Board, in both letters to them and in public testimony, that they cannot claim they practice “transparency” and “public engagement” when the public cannot see and participate fully in what they are doing.  There was one binder with all of the policies on the agenda—on a desk outside the Committee room.  When I testified, I asked the Committee what they meant when they announced at the outset of the meeting that the agenda materials were online—that we were supposed to memorize all of the policies and proposed changes before the meeting?  The SRC provided adequate copies of the public documents at every meeting. The Board has no excuse for not doing the same.

Present: Co-chairs Joyce Wilkerson and Maria McColgan, Members Lee Huang, Chris McGinley, and Julia Danzy.

Committee approved Minutes of previous meeting.

Naomi Wyatt, Chief of Staff in the Office of the Superintendent, gave a rapid presentation of 40 policies to be added, deleted or amended. The titles of the policies were projected on the wall, but not the text of the policies.

We suggest you watch the video and/or review the agenda for this meeting if you want to see the details of the changes recommended by the Committee at this meeting.

School Nurse Eileen Duffey came to the meeting on her lunch hour; the meeting is held at 1 PM. (Her school is not far away by public transportation.)  Duffey raised the same issue she has addressed at previous Action and Committee meetings: the District’s failure to comply with its own policies and the law in immunization matters.  She reiterated that this is an urgent matter, that students without necessary immunizations are being allowed to come to school, and that the decision not to exclude non-immunized students is being made by non-medical staff at 440. Recent records show that about 12,000 students lack those immunizations. Duffey suggested that the District place public service announcements (PSAs) on radio and TV over the summer in order to remind parents to take care of this before school starts; that would significantly decrease the number of students that would have to be excluded.

Parent Activist Cecelia Thompson also objected the lack of available public documents during Committee and Board meetings, reminding the Committee members that many families do not have internet access.

Parent Stephanie Kind addressed the issue of segregation in District schools. Her daughter attends Kearney Elementary in Northern Liberties. Kearney’s student body is 94% African-American; that does not reflect the demographics of the neighborhood. White parents are sending their children to schools outside the catchment area, and those schools have accommodated those parents. King wants the Committee to review any policy that allows this kind of segregation. Angela McIver thanked King for keeping this issue “front and center”.

Defenders of Public Educations Speak Before the BOE, April 25, 2019

BOE

This post includes the testimony of those that spoke at both the April 25th Budget Meeting and the Action Meetings as well as the testimony of those that were unable to speak at the March Action meeting.  Click on the name to read the transcripts of each individual’s testimonies.

Eileen Duffey

Deborah Grill

Lisa Haver

Kristin Luebbert

Coleman Poses

Ilene Poses

 Lynda Rubin