February 1, 2016
Dear Commissioner Neff:
The members of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools call on you to nullify the vote taken at the January 21, 2016 School Reform Commission in the matter of Wister Elementary School. There are a number of reasons why you cannot allow this vote to stand.
First, no resolution regarding Wister was ever presented to the public. Commissioner Sylvia Simms alluded to a resolution during her speech but did not read any resolution. Mr. Davis, before calling the roll, gave an interpretation of what it was purportedly about, but he did not read any resolution. If no resolution was ever presented to the public, then it is not possible for any resolution to have been passed. For that reason alone, the action taken by the SRC must be rescinded and, if necessary, voted upon in a subsequent meeting.
In our email to you (and copied to SRC Chief of Staff Claire Landau) of Monday, January 25, we asked for a transcript of the resolution in its entirety. To date, we have not received that, nor has any such resolution been posted on the district website.
Second, the public was prevented from speaking on the alleged resolution. When Ms. Haver requested that the public be given an opportunity to speak on the resolution, you refused and immediately instructed Mr. Davis to call the roll. You never gave any reason why it was not possible for public comment to be heard. As Chair of the SRC, you are aware that this is a clear violation of the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act.
Third, the deliberate deception in this matter, by district officials at all levels, led to the Wister community being underrepresented at the January 21 SRC meeting. After district officials, including Interim Chief of Neighborhood Schools Network Karen Kolsky, publicly admitted that incorrect data was used by the district to justify placement of Wister on the Renaissance list, Superintendent Hite announced to the press that Wister was no longer on that list. A celebratory open-house, attended by City Councilpersons Helen Gym and William Greenlee and by State Senator Art Haywood, was held at the school. Dr. Hite also announced that the district would be, in collaboration with the school community, formulating an alternative plan for improving Wister. In fact, Ms. Kolsky held a meeting for this purpose on Wednesday, January 20, the night before the SRC meeting (although little was accomplished due to the disruption of that meeting by Mastery representatives).
In its Resolution Summary posted two weeks prior to the January meeting, the SRC posted one resolution to turn over Jay Cooke Elementary School to Great Oaks Charter and another to turn Samuel Huey Elementary over to Global Leadership Academy. There was no resolution of any kind regarding Wister.
The message from the district and the SRC was clear: we are taking no action on Wister.
Thus, the many parents and community members fighting to keep the school public, who had attended meetings at Wister for over three months, did not attend the SRC meeting. The SRC violated the right of the public, particularly those in the Wister community, to proper notice before any resolution was to be voted upon. And despite Ms. Simms’ statement that she heard from parents “on both sides”, the fact remains that she did not attend any of those community meetings.
Fourth, the concerns about possible conflicts of interest raised by members of the public, including those in attendance at the SRC meeting, could have serious consequences for the SRC. Ms. Simms’ sister has a relationship with Mastery Schools. An opinion from the State Ethics Commission should be obtained addressing this issue. The opinion should discuss the nature of Ms. Simms’ relationship to Mastery Charter Schools and any benefit to her from the resolution in question. Pending receipt of an appropriate opinion, this vote should be nullified. It would appear that the most ethical approach pending receipt of that opinion would be that Ms. Simms should not participate in any future votes concerning Mastery Charter Schools.
This is a decision which affects all of those with a stake in the district, which includes all residents and taxpayers of the city. As you said at that meeting, this is still a “zero-sum game” and the district cannot afford it. Any decision on the future of a public school and its community cannot be made based on the “pent-up emotions” of one person. The action taken by the SRC—introducing a resolution from the floor and voting on it just minutes later— flies in the face of democracy. The destabilization of the Wister school community with this unprecedented action necessitates a timely response and an honest and transparent resolution.
Co-founders, Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools
cc: Michael Davis, Head of Office of General Counsel
Claire Landau, Chief of Staff, School Reform Commission