Ears on the Board of Education: August 15, 2019

by Diane Payne

The Board continues to vote on all charter matters in secret after negotiating with charter operators on conditions acceptable to them. Is it the Board’s position that charters are not public schools so votes on charter applications, renewals and amendments are not required to be taken in public?

Present

President Joyce Wilkerson, Julia Danzy, Leticia Egea-Hinton, Lee Huang, Angela McIver, and Chris McGinley were present.  Vice-president Wayne Walker participated via phone. Board members Maria McColgan and Mallory Fix Lopez were absent. Wilkerson announced the addition of a baby girl to the Fix Lopez family. Congratulations and best of luck to Ms. Fix Lopez!

Nine APPS members attended the meeting; six testified in defense of public education.

This entire Board meeting can be viewed on the District website here.

Eastern University Charter School Closes

President Wilkerson delivered a statement outlining the legal steps that led up to the school’s closing this summer. Omar Barlow, EU’s CEO, had made statements in the press that the district is profiling minority-led charter schools for closure and had withheld information about EU.  The SRC voted not to renew the school’s charter in 2018 due to consistently declining academic outcomes, along with failure to meet organizational and financial standards. Legal hearings were held, and Hearing Examiner Rudy Garcia recommended that the District move toward a final vote for closure, and a vote to close EU was passed.   In June, the state Charter Appeal Board, in a unanimous vote, upheld the District’s decision. Eastern will not be opening this school year. Wilkerson noted the District’s concern for the EU families; she said that letters were sent in July and again in August informing those families on how to enroll in a new school.

Wilkerson remarked on how painful and difficult it is for the families involved when a charter school closes. What all too frequently goes unsaid is how many charter schools are in fact doing poorly in one or all of three performance categories: academic achievement, financial health, and organizational compliance. Charters are renewed again and again with “conditions” for improvement that the Charter School Office (CSO) negotiates in private meetings with charter operators, followed by a CSO recommendations for 5-year renewals, some with conditions.  Reviews of subsequent charter evaluations show that there is little enforcement. Those conditions remain a secret until after the meeting because the Board, continuing the SRC’s practice, takes secret votes on all charter matters. The Board posts only the title of the official Item; there is no content. The full Item is not posted until the day after the meeting. That is a blatant violation of the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act. APPS co-founder Lisa Haver stands up and objects each time the Board conducts this illegal vote, as is her right under Section 710 © of the Sunshine Act. The Board ignores her and has yet to explain why other votes are public but all charter votes are not.

Wilkerson also reported that Action Item 66 was a “walk-on”  (ratification of Unite Here’s union contract) and members of the public could register then to speak on this Item.

Minutes from the June Action Meeting and the July TRANS meeting were approved.

Schools Are Not Charities

At the beginning of his written remarks, Dr. Hite encouraged the public to participate in the “Ring the Bell” challenge and post videos of themselves ringing a bell to welcome in the new school year.  He encouraged families to visit the District website to know what is needed and expected for a good beginning to their children’s school year. Hite also announced that the District was unveiling a new version of the SDP home page.  (APPS members frequently access the website and have pointed out areas that are not user-friendly with hopes of District improvement. We’ll see if this “refresh” addresses ease of information access.)

Hite next asked the Board to approve Action Item (AI) 22, Amendment of Contract with the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia: “The purpose of this Action Item is to enable the District to continue to contribute to the operating costs of the Fund by supporting the salary/benefits of its President and CEO as it develops capacity.”  This Item would increase the compensation the District provided to the Fund by $200,000, thereby increasing the total compensation to $1,040,000.

The president and CEO of The Fund is Donna Frisby-Greenwood.  The most recent federal tax information—the 2016 IRS “990” form—shows a combined salary/compensation of $177,717 for Frisby-Greenwood. (The 990s contain the only publicly available information about the salaries of top paid non-profit administrators.)  Hite said that the funding from the District to the Fund doesn’t support one person’s salary but a “structure” that will allow the fund to develop. Actually, the Item specifically states that it will be “…supporting the salary/benefits of its President and CEO.”  So what is this additional $200K for? What does the District’s $1 million to the Fund pay for? What is the current salary of this non-profit CEO?  Salary information for all District employees is publicly posted? If the public is paying Ms. Frisby-Greenwood’s salary, why is that not posted also?

Since its inception, APPS members have challenged the lack of public oversight of funds that are distributed through private channels.  The Fund’s Board is a Who’s Who of the wealthy and powerful, representing local and global corporate interests.

Are these the people we want deciding how to fund public schools?  Hite’s endorsement of The Fund’s support of “classroom libraries” to support literacy is a case in point.  Why isn’t the Fund supporting actual school libraries—staffed by Certified Teacher Librarians—which have been proven to improve academic performance? Hite has resisted bringing back school libraries, so The Fund creates a diversion with classroom libraries.

One APPS member who recently contacted The Fund about attending its next meeting received a written reply that “…our Board of Director meetings are not open to the public.  These are closed, private meetings.” Is this new Board of Education okay with wealthy and powerful corporate representatives deciding in private which schools and which programs are deserving of financial support? Hite proudly pointed to the $16 million The Fund has raised over four years. (Why don’t Fund salaries come from the money raised by The Fund?)  There was no mention of the need for a public discussion about the growing influence of entities like The Fund and the Philadelphia School Partnership (another corporate player making big decisions about Philadelphia schools). Schools are not charities and should not be funded as if they were.

Board and Staff Presentations

Board member Angela McIver, who has supported voter registration drives in high schools, cited Item 61 on National Voter Registration Day before introducing Philadelphia City Commission Chairwoman Lisa Deeley.  Deeley has been working with staff in a number of city high schools to encourage, educate, and register eligible seniors. Deeley presented information on efforts already underway, and she requested Board approval in designating September 24th as National Voter Registration Day, a non-partisan effort directed at registering and engaging seniors in the voting process. In answer to a question from Wilkerson, Deeley confirmed that students 17 or older can receive training and are paid to work the polls.  This action represents the culmination of the efforts of teachers, students and community members who have advocated before the administration and the Board for an organized effort to register of-age students.

Charter School Office Interim Chief Christina Grant presented partial information on three Charter School Action Items: 62, 63, and 64. The CSO recommended a 5-year renewal for Inquiry Charter, part of the Belmont Network; that renewal had been postponed since 2017 because Belmont officials refused to accept any conditions for improvement. The CSO did not update the 2017 Evaluation Report in its recommendation. On the District’s webpage, Inquiry is listed as a K-3 school; in Grant’s presentation it was listed as a K-5. The last School Progress Report (SPR)  listed on the CSO webpage for the 2016/17 School Year cites “Insufficient Data” on the categories of Overall Performance, Achievement, and Progress. Only Climate had a rating of Reinforce. Why is there no information for a school that has 3rd grade and higher?  How can the Board take a vote on a school with no information provided on the webpage about SPR ratings and incomplete information provided in the CSO presentation?

Real estate developer Michael Karp serves as Board of Director of all Belmont schools, including Inquiry (which was renamed a few years ago).  Karp was given control of the two schools in 1998 and 2002, in a pre-Renaissance program move, because he claimed that as a rich person he had the expertise to operate elementary schools in poor neighborhoods. When trying to look for news articles on Karp’s expertise as a school operator what one finds is backroom dealing with a City Council member for a Market Street property, a multi-million dollar purchase ($20 million) of a vintage Greenwich Village Townhouse in NYC ,  and most recently the suspicious Harrisburg insider deal that benefited ONLY Karp’s Belmont school. One is hard pressed to find those educational credentials.  Shouldn’t the Board be safeguarding our students and our tax dollars?  The information about Inquiry’s performance should be front and center; instead it is nowhere to be found.  The school’s Financial Health overall rating was a red color coded Does Not Meet Standards.  Inquiry’s Board compliance was also in the red. Why did the Board vote to renew? None of the Board members offered an explanation of why they were voting to spend tens of millions more for a clearly low-performing charter. Our calculations, based on figures from the District’s 2019 budget, show that the District will be allotting a minimum of  $13, 972, 885 to operate Inquiry Charter for the next five years. 

The presentation on KIPP DuBois charter—postponed since last year—ended with the CSO recommending a 5-year renewal without conditions. The 2016/17 SPR ratings for this school are: Overall – Watch, Achievement – Intervene (2%), Progress – Watch, Climate – Reinforce, College & Career – Watch.  No mention was made in the CSO report of the Achievement score at 2%. None of the Board members questioned the recommendation or asked for any detailed information. If enrollment and Special Education services remain constant, the District will be spending a minimum of $38, 389, 680 to operate KIPP Du Bois for the next five years. 

The last presentation on Action Item 64, KIPP Philadelphia Charter School’s mid-cycle amendment request for location change, was presented in conjunction with Action Item 65, the sale of the former John Whittier school building to a financial agent for KIPP, to complete that location change. Whittier was one of 23 neighborhood schools closed by the SRC in 2013; the building has been vacant since that time. KIPP’s agent proposed a $775,000 cash sale for the building according to District Chief Operating Officer Danielle Floyd. The building will be bought by a separate, for-profit entity: KIPP Whittier Development, LLC MIS Capital LLC.  This represents yet another circular lease agreement common in the charter sector.

Board member McIver, in stating her opposition to the Item, asked whether there was a provision in the agreement that if KIPP were to no longer operate a school in that building, the SDP would have first right to buy the building back. Floyd said there was no such provision.  McIver expressed concern that 5 or 10 years down the road, the private corporation that owns the building could turn it into condos if they wanted. Wilkerson then enumerated her reasons for supporting the Item. (More to follow on this Item during the voting process.)

Public Speakers

It matters who the District takes money from and for what purposes. This Board, like the SRC, unquestioningly approves grant money and contracts with outside firms and corporations for a variety of services. This erodes our vision of public education committed to the common good and conducted through a democratic process which engages the voices of the staff, students, families, and stakeholders.

Two members of APPS spoke against Action Items 16 and 17. Both Items would accept grants to partially fund the salaries and benefits for two additional Fellows (for a total of four) from the Broad Foundation to work on “projects” with the Hite administration.  The Broad Foundation is one of many vehicles that billionaires use to set their own agenda of what education should look like. The influence in District administration of Fellows from this corporate model cannot be understated.  Hite himself is a graduate of the Broad Superintendent’s Academy. Even though this is an unaccredited institution with no ties to any recognized university, Broad graduates have been hired in districts across the country.  It was distressing to see this on the agenda, and even more distressing to see the Board, with the one exception of Chris McGinley, vote to approve it.

Two APPS members spoke against the sale of Whittier School, a public asset, to a private entity.

Two speakers—one APPS member and one member of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ Caucus of Working Educators—testified on the deplorable conditions of the Extended School Year (ESY) program for special needs students.  They noted the lack of materials and curriculum, grossly oversized classes, the serving of frozen food to students, and more.  Hite said that he would look into the conditions at the locations mentioned by the speakers. McGinley then advised Hite that this is a system-wide issue and would be put on the agenda for the Student Achievement and Support Committee.  McGinley said that he had personally heard from numerous sources that the ESY program had the same issues the speakers brought up at sites across the District.

Block Voting, Outsourcing, and Abstentions 

After the testimony of public speakers on Action Items, the Board voted on all Action Items.

AI 2: No vote, for review only.

AI 1 through 15; AI 18; AI 21 through 59: passed unanimously except for abstentions from Huang and McIver on Item 30 (they both have connections with Penn Alexander).

AI 16 and 17 were removed from the previous block at the request of McGinley, who urged the Board to vote No for the “ reasons expressed by the public speakers”.  Both passed, 6-1. The Broad privatization ideology will continue to deepen in the Hite administration.

AI 19, 20, and 60: passed unanimously.

AI 61: passed unanimously.

AI 62: Before the roll call for the charter renewal votes, APPS co-founder Lisa Haver stood up and addressed President Wilkerson and the Board, telling them she was raising an objection, under Section 710 © of the PA Sunshine Act, to the Board’s failure to inform the public of what they were voting on. The charter items were not posted online, and there was nothing in the documents at the meeting.  APPS had sent a letter to the Board earlier that day, once again explaining the requirements of the Sunshine Act and the public’s right to raise an objection when any Board or government agency violates it.

President Wilkerson ignored Haver’s legal right to object, talked over her objection, and continued with the vote.  Haver informed Wilkerson that she had an obligation to listen to the objection and respond to it. None of the other Board members responded to Haver’s objection. All charter Items passed unanimously. The following day, all of the charter Items were posted in full on the District’s website.

AI 63:  passed unanimously.

AI 64: passed unanimously.

AI 65 (Sale of Whittier building): This vote was interrupted when Board member McIver again questioned the sale of this property to a private entity without any protections built into the agreement for the return of the building to the District should the school cease operations there.  She received support from members Danzy and Walker who asked if the vote could be tabled until it could be explored further. A motion was made and seconded to table the vote. McGinley objected to the delay because the matter had been on the agenda at the May Finance and Facility Committee meeting. (Not all Board members are on that committee, and not all members of the public can attend Committee meetings held at 1 PM. The purpose of Committee meetings, according to the Board, is to have more discussion, not less.)  Hite, in the middle of the Board vote, asked Christina Grant and Danielle Floyd to return to the table for their perspectives.  (None of the Board members objected to Hite’s interruption of the vote.) Both Grant and Floyd defended the steps taken by District staff on this Item.  They cited efforts to engage the community and the staff presentation at the F&F meeting in May. Grant noted that a delay in the vote would affect KIPP’s start date for the school year.

McIver pointed out that she was not opposed to the sale but to the lack of protection built into the agreement. She wanted to ensure that the for-profit purchaser could not turn around and sell the building for a profit.

Wilkerson then announced that the Board would take a 7-minute recess to discuss this matter and consult with counsel.  The Board did recess, but for much longer than 7 minutes. APPS questions the Board’s meeting in executive session to discuss this matter. While it is technically about real estate, the issue was not the sale price but whether the District could have a say in the use of the building.

When the vote resumed, APPS member Rich Migliore objected that members of the public should be able to speak on this Item since the Action Item had changed.  President Wilkerson ignored Migliore’s objections, talked over him and voted on the motion to table the Item. The vote failed with four members voting No; Letitia Egea-Hinton, Lee Huang, Chris McGinley, and Joyce Wilkerson.  Wilkerson then called a vote on AI 65 when Egea-Hinton made a motion to amend the Item to include a provision that the property would be used for education purposes and in the event the school closes the SDP would have the first right of purchase at an appraisal value determined by the District.  This Motion to amend passed with a unanimous Yes vote.

The vote was then called on the amended Item which passed with 6-1, McIver dissenting. (When questioned, Floyd stated that if the purchaser does not agree with the amended provision there would not be a sale.)

AI: 66: Unite Here contract approved unanimously

September Board Meetings

Next Board Action Meeting:  September 19 at 5 PM in the 2ndfloor auditorium at 440 N. Broad Street.

Student Achievement Committee: September 5 at 5 PM in the Committee Room.

Finance and Facility Committee: September 12 at 3 PM in the Committee Room.

Policy Committee:  September 12 at 5 PM in the Committee Room.

Special Public Meeting: September 26 at 5 PM in the Auditorium. Details not yet available on SDP website, but this is one of the two meetings required under the City Charter for public comment on any matter of concern to the community on District issues.