Ears on the Board of Education: June 27, 2019

by Diane Payne

Before the Board began the call to vote on the three charter school renewals on this agenda, APPS co-founder Lisa Haver stood and raised an objection to the proceedings, under Section 710 © of the Sunshine Act, about a clear violation of the Act as the Board was poised to vote on four official Items which contained no text or details—a de facto secret vote.  Despite APPS raising objections in letters and testimony, this Board continues the SRC’s practice of voting on Charter School matters and posting the text after the vote and after the meeting concludes. That constitutes a falsification of the public record as it implies that it was available to the public before the vote. In fact, there is no written acknowledgment that it was posted the day after the meeting.  President Joyce Wilkerson did not respond to Haver’s objection, nor did any of the other Board members, and the votes were cast illegally.

APPS contends that this Board consistently violates the Sunshine Act by not providing full information on charter school Items and by falsifying the records by placing text sometime after the vote as though it was available at the time of the vote. [Note: the Items in question were posted in full two days after the meeting.]

Present

Seven of the nine Board members were present as well as the two student representatives.  Absent were Leticia Egea-Hinton and Mallory Fix Lopez. Eight members of APPS were present; seven spoke in defense of public education.  The video of this meeting can be viewed by going to the BOE page of the SDP website.

Minutes of the May 30, 2019 Action Meeting were approved.

The two student representatives, Julia Frank and Alfredo Practico, read a statement about their experience serving on the Board, and they encouraged the public to view their report which should be available on the District website by the weekend.  APPS wishes them well in their college endeavors and appreciates the work they did in giving students a voice.

Belmont Bombshell

President Wilkerson made an announcement about Action Items that had been withdrawn.  For Action Item 1 with multiple policy items, one item, Policy 007 was withdrawn because new information was received and the Board needs to review it.  Wilkerson then stated that Action Item 40, the sale of the “unused and unnecessary” school district property at 4030 Brown Street to Belmont Futures, was also being withdrawn.  This property houses Belmont Charter School, so this designation of “unused and unnecessary” was incorrect from a legal standpoint. Belmont Charter CEO Michael Karp is a wealthy and politically connected real estate mogul; he controls the operation of three schools in the Belmont network. Karp testified at the May 2017 SRC meeting that Belmont would not be signing the new charter because he objected to “conditions” imposed on the school. Belmont had failed to meet any standards in that evaluation; in fact,  Belmont received a “Does Not Meet” rating in academics. Since Belmont had not been successful in any category, the conditions were simply the CSO’s attempt to make Belmont responsible for the terms of its contract.

Charter School Office Interim Director Christina Grant announced at the May 16 2019 Finance Committee that the CSO had been negotiating (in private) with the Belmont administration who were now willing to sign the new charter. Why? Because the sale of the 4030 Brown Street property was contingent on that renewal.  Apparently, Belmont officials would not improve the academic, financial, and organizational deficiencies for the sake of the Belmont students and families, but they are willing to do so in order to accumulate real estate. Chief Operating Officer Danielle Floyd also told the Committee that her office had been in talks with Belmont about the sale of the building. Not only had a sale price been negotiated, an August closing date had already been scheduled! Board member Chris McGinley pointed out that this school is a Renaissance School, which means it serves a District catchment area; he also stated that the building is neither unused nor unnecessary. Selling this building to a charter operator would be one more in a long list of the District selling off its public buildings, creating more “school deserts” in struggling neighborhoods. The District has sold off public school buildings for a song—look at Bok, Smith School, University City, and Germantown, to name a few.

APPS members immediately began to testify, research, and write the Board expressing the problems inherent in this “deal.”  It seems that our efforts were having an effect, as newspaper stories reported that Board members were skeptical of the deal. We were optimistic that the Board would vote to keep that public building out of the hands of a private concern. But lo and behold, Harrisburg seems to be rallying to facilitate the interests of Michael Karp. Speaker of the House Mike Turzai (R, Allegheny) had introduced House Bill 1615 just prior to the Board meeting which would in essence allow Karp’s schools to secede from the School District of Philadelphia.  Money talks. Turzai is no friend of Philadelphia and no friend of public education. Details are sparse at this point but the public needs to be aware of this transaction.

Behind this story is the history of developer and landlord Michael Karp, notably his influence and wealth.  He has served on the PICA Board (Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority) since he was appointed by Governor Tom Ridge in 2000, one year before the state takeover of Philadelphia’s public schools.  Per the PICA website: PICA was created in 1991 to assist the City of Philadelphia in overcoming a severe financial crisis. The Authority was created through the joint efforts of concerned Philadelphians and State officials who envisioned a structure which would assist the City in putting its revenue collection and spending processes in order and at the same time reach a consensus on its future priorities, assets and limitations.”   In other words, an appointed board has the power to override the decisions of the duly elected representatives of the city.

In 2015, Karp bought a vintage Greenwich Village townhouse for $32 million.

In February of this year, the Philadelphia Tribune reported that City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell allegedly tried to aid Karp in the purchase of 4601 Market Street.  Blackwell served on Belmont’s board for many years.

Indicating the range of Karp’s political influence, Philly Power Research found:  “In 2018, the top real estate donors to current City Councilmembers and City Council candidates were: Joseph Zuritsky, Chairman of Parkway Corporation; The Building Industry Association; and Michael Karp, head of University City Housing Company and the Belmont Charter Network.” 

We ask again: Is this about educating needy children or is it about real estate deals?

Superintendent’s Remarks

Dr. Hite began by congratulating the senior class of 2019, thanking the out-going student representatives, and by recognizing the  commitment of teachers and staff to the week-long summer institute training, [He did refer to it as a “boot camp” but did not mention that many who attend have no choice, e.g., those in the Acceleration Network.) Hite also addressed the U S Supreme Court decision to strike the Trump administration attempt at including a citizenship question on the 2020 Census form.  Hite stressed that it is extremely important that the community gets the word that answering the census is not a threat and that billions of federal dollars hang in the balance if incorrect counts result due to incorrect information.

Hite shared information regarding the District’s efforts at voter registration geared to District seniors.  A packet has been developed in conjunction with the Committee of 70 for all Social Studies teachers, and professional development will be available. Next year, certain high schools will be targeted for voter registration events.  APPS speaker Coleman Poses has been advocating for District engagement in getting high school seniors registered to vote. In his remarks Thursday, Poses asked Hite if a database could notify school personnel when students turn 18 so that district officials can provide the forms immediately.  Hite did not have an answer to Poses’ query but said he would get back to him.

Committee Reports 

Chairs of each committee–Student Achievement, Finance and Facilities, Community Engagement, and Policy–gave a brief update from their last meetings.  APPS reports for each of these meetings can be viewed on our website.  There were no District presentations at this Action Meeting. In the past, the CSO would present information about charter renewals and applications at the full Board meetings; that seems to no longer be the case. It is part of the pattern of keeping charter issues out of the public eye.

Speakers

Three members of APPS spoke in opposition to the amendment hidden in Action Item 91–MaST II’s request for an enrollment increase of 650 students as part of its renewal agreement.  Only those who attended the June Student Achievement Committee had any knowledge of the increase. Even after we notified the Board and the Board staff, no information about enrollment increases as part of any charter renewal was posted on the District website.  APPS members highlighted MaST’s blatant school segregation. Some examples across its two current campuses: MaST’s poverty levels are 26% & 43% compared to SDP’s 74%; African/American student percentages are 8% & 24% compared to SDP’s 50%; and White percentages are 68% & 41% compared to SDP’s 14%.

The topic of the District’s involvement in increasing the segregation of schools has been addressed at multiple Committee and Action Meetings by a parent from the Northern Liberties community.  Stephanie King brought graphs, data, and noted her past attempts to engage the District in discussion about this ongoing problem. Board member Angela McIver agreed with King that it was an issue that needed a hard look.  King stated that the District is engaged in “willful segregation.” Yet even in the face of MaST’s demographics, the Board voted 6 in favor and 1 against to approve the renewal and the 650 seat enrollment increase. There was no discussion or even acknowledgement of why such an increase should be approved–even when APPS member Diane Payne called out from the audience asking the Board to explain why they were voting to approve this increase.  Why the secrecy?

MaST CEO Charles Swoyer III pulls in a salary of $335,147 for overseeing two schools, MaST I and MaST II.  (Dr. Hite makes $311,000 for overseeing 210 schools.) The MaST Board approves all MaST salaries, which are paid by taxpayers who have no say in that decision–or knowledge, unless they are able to pore over federal tax information.  An additional MaST II campus is under construction along the Delaware River near the Tacony Palmyra Bridge. Since the SRC approved MaST for a mega-third school on a 30-acre tract on Roosevelt Boulevard, that means that these three new campuses will be in remote locations.  None of these campuses will qualify as a “great school close to where children live” as Dr. Hite often says because there are no neighborhoods by any of these campuses. The MaST II new campus and the third MaST school are both located in industrial areas.

Although two campuses are in the Achievement category of Reinforce, the high school is in the Watch category.  Even with the skewed demographics, not a great success.

The CSO report unabashedly states that “the CSO anticipates the enrollment increase to positively impact the Charter School’s ability to borrow money for construction.”  Apparently using our children as bargaining chips so this powerful organization can increase its holdings is not even something to feel shame about.  This raises the specter of a Ponzi-like scheme of continually filling in the bottom to keep the top afloat. As APPS member Deb Grill told the Board in her testimony: “ It is not your responsibility to facilitate profitable real estate deals for charter operators or universities.”

Finally, the Board failed to answer the question of whether secret bartering between the CSO and the Charter School resulted in a quid pro quo.  MaST dropped its Multiple Charter School Organization (MCSO) application, which Chris McGinley specifically asked about at the June Student Achievement  Committee meeting, along with the reference to the enrollment increase. APPS co-founder Lisa Haver asked the Board directly if this was the case but no answer was given nor was there any indication an answer would be forthcoming.

This was a disheartening vote to increase the real estate footprint of a charter school that is directly  linked to school segregation, overpaid executives, remote school locations, and state of the art facilities to provide that private school vibe for their select group of students.  This while children at schools like Gideon, Sheridan, Harding, and more struggle for resources, safety, and non-toxic buildings.

Deal for Drexel–Who Benefits Most?

Drexel President John Fry gave a 40-minute presentation at June’s Finance and Facilities meeting.  He laid out all the good that Drexel has done for the public school communities near Drexel, most notably Powell Elementary.  His mission was to have the District put $7 million into the kitty to fund construction of a new building, owned by Drexel, intended to co-locate Powel and SLA Middle School (SLAMS). According to Fry, Drexel has already secured $29 million from various sources for the new building–to be constructed on the site of the former University City High School at 3601 Filbert Street. Uni City, along with the adjacent schools Drew Elementary and the Walnut School, were closed by the SRC in 2013, the property purchased by Drexel, and the buildings quickly razed. So…the District sold the property to Drexel, Drexel bought it and will now lease it to the District. One group strongly advocating for the 23 school closings that year was the Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP), when Fry was a member of the Board. Fry continues to be a major contributor to PSP (as is Michael Karp).

The 2016 Memorandum of Understanding between the District and Drexel details the level of control Drexel will have over this new school.  There were promises by Drexel to guard against the gentrification and other issues that resulted from the University of Pennsylvania’s involvement in Penn Alexander. One question not posed by any member of the Board in either the Committee or Action Meeting: why does Drexel want to build this school in its backyard? Who stands to benefit?  And wouldn’t the District benefit every year if Drexel would pay its PILOTs (Payments in Lieu of Taxes)?

Fry’s presentation was never posted on the District website.

Action Item – 41 – passed with 6 Yes and 1 Abstain insuring the involvement of another wealthy institution that will “partner” with the SDP.

Board Votes

The Board took block voting to a new level at this meeting.  President Wilkerson separated the Items into 5 blocks (not in order),  and 83 Items were passed in 5 votes.

Action Items 1 – 3

Action Items 9 – 16

Action Items 20 – 39

Action Items 42 – 88

Action Items 92 – 96

McGinley and Wilkerson abstained on Action Item 14; it passed 5 Yes and 2 Abstain. Huang abstained on Action Item 75; it passed 6 Yes and 1 Abstain.  The remaining items in this block passed unanimously.

Action Items 4 – 8 passed unanimously.

Action Items 17 -18 passed unanimously.

Action Item 19 was withdrawn.

Action Item 41 Drexel vote passed with 6 Yes votes, I Abstain from Huang and comments from McGinley, Wilkerson, and McIver about why they were voting yes.

Action Item 89 passed unanimously.

Action Item 90 passed with 6 Yes votes and 1 Abstain from McColgan

Action Item 91 passed with 6 yes votes and 1 No vote from McGinley

The Action Meeting adjourned and the Intermediate Unit convened. The Board passed three Action Items unanimously.