by Karel Kilimnik
August 31, 2017
It’s been a busy summer for education activists. APPS members have:
- Responded to the challenges posed by the new District website
- Appealed the District’s response to our Right To Know request for information about the secret meetings held between District staff and charter school operators over a 6-month period this year
- Produced our regular editions of Eyes and Ears on SRC meetings
- Worked with members of the Strawberry Mansion High community to get information about a possible co-location of an outsourced program at the school
On August 1, without any prior public notification, the District posted a new website. The previous site was taken down, and information about charter evaluations, individual schools and SRC history were nowhere to be found. Minutes and Resolutions from SRC meetings from 2001 to 2016 were gone. The entire page on Dr Hite’s prized System of Great Schools disappeared. We were unable to contact the Director and Assistant Director of the Communications Office as they were both on vacation the week the new website made its debut. We were able to speak off the record with some SRC staff members, but no one could give us a definite answer on when—or if—that information would be restored. First we were told October, then January 2018. Dr. Hite, in his first remarks on the subject at the August 17 SRC meeting, said that all information would be restored by “Spring 2018”. Is this the SRC’s idea of transparency and community engagement?
Several APPS members raised concerns about the disappearance of public information by a government agency at the August 17 SRC meeting. Dr Hite actually responded to Lisa Haver’s question by stating that the “district was interested in restoring information and would appreciate feedback about what is missing, how users’ experiences can be improved and what is not working well.” Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Because of the pressure from APPS members, we have seen much of the information about SRC history restored. We will continue to monitor the website.
APPS Files Right to Know on Secret Meetings with Charter Supporters
On May 18 NewsWorks published an article which revealed that for six months District officials, including Dr. Hite, met in a series of secret meetings with several charter operators and charter supporters. The purpose of the meetings, according to the article, was “…to reach consensus on how to rewrite Pennsylvania’s 20-year-old charter law”. Many, including City Controller Alan Butkovitz and State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, have called the state’s charter law the worst in the country. These meetings began in October 2016 and continued through April 2017. Ironically, Dr Hite told NewsWorks, “We wanted whatever we came up with to be transparent and predictable.”
During this time, the SRC continued to renew existing charters and accept applications for new charters. Russell Byers Charter, whose founder Laurada Byers was in attendance, was granted an amendment for change of address. An out of state lobbying group, the National Association for the Authorization of Charter Schools, worked with SRC staff to coordinate these meetings. In apparent violation of the PA Sunshine Act, no public record was made of the business transacted or issues discussed. Dr. Hite never addressed the matter in any of his official reports at SRC meetings. The public has a right to know whether any conflicts of interest arose as a result of what transpired at these meetings.
In July, APPS filed an official Right to Know request to the SRC in which we asked for all minutes, notes, communications and list of attendees. The SRC responded by declining to send almost everything we requested. We then filed an Appeal to the State’s Office of Open Records. The SRC must send their response to the state by early September. Stay tuned.
We continue to remind both the Superintendent and the SRC that they are government officials and that the public has a right to know what decisions are being made and who will benefit from them.
Co-location at Strawberry Mansion—When Will Community Get Answers?
When members of the Strawberry Mansion High School community heard that the district might use the building to house an outsourced program run by Camelot, they invited APPS members to attend an August 16 meeting held at the school. Camelot is a private company that provides (according to its website) alternative schools for both overage and students “with autistic and exceptional needs”.
Parents who saw furniture being moved into the building had begun to ask questions but were unable to get information from the district. The district had not held any informational meetings or sent any information via email or the district website. (Although there are ongoing problems with the website [see “Disappearing Documents” above], we were able to click on “school directory” and then “alternative schools” to find a list of eight Camelot schools currently operating in the district—even ones not carrying the company name. Mastery and Aspira charter operators also pay Camelot to operate programs for their at-risk students.
Attendees at the August 16 meeting included Assistant Superintendent Eric Becoates, SMHS SAC member Tanya Parker, a staffer representing State Rep. Donna Bullock, SMHS Principal Dr. Tony Oyola, several alumni and community members, and APPS members Lisa Haver and Tonya Bah. Haver asked Becoates several times whether the district was putting Camelot into the building; he refused to answer. She explained, since Becoates did not, that Camelot is a private company hired by the district and that the company would be co-locating in the building but not be part of the school. Principal Oyola would have no authority over the program’s employees or students. Becoates would only say that the program would be for “overage” middle school students with behavioral issues. Haver also asked Becoates why there was no representative from Camelot to explain the program or why there was not a single sheet of information parents could read about it.
Both Lisa Haver and Karel Kilimnik asked Dr. Hite directly, at the August 17 SRC meeting, whether Camelot would be setting up shop at Strawberry Mansion. No answer, as expected. What was strange was Hite’s silence after the testimony of former SMHS Principal Linda Cliatt-Wayman, who thanked him and the district for NOT allowing Camelot to operate at Strawberry Mansion. No confirmation or denial from Dr. Hite or any of the commissioners. What does it take for community members to get answers about their schools?
Edu-Vendors Win Again
The SRC continues its disrespectful tradition of voting on large blocks of Resolutions without deliberation or answering any questions posed by speakers at the Action Meeting.
The Cambridge Education company has surfaced again in search of another taxpayer-funded consulting contract. In a surprising move, four commissioners voted down a resolution to contract with Cambridge two months ago; Jimenez cast the lone Yes vote. Unfortunately, the 4-1 vote in August did give the go-ahead to Cambridge; McGinley voted No.
Catapult Inc.was another winner. Despite providing limited information about the $6,997,500 contract with Community Council Educational Services and Catapult Learning, this resolution sailed through with another windfall for Catapult—just two months after they scored a $1.2 million contract for outsourced Health and Nutrition educators. In July, Catapult received a $10 million contract to open a segregated school for the district’s most vulnerable special education students. Below is an excerpt from the July 6 Ears on the SRC on the twisted path the District chose to implement this outsourcing:
Third Time’s the Charm For Catapult Inc. as Lawyers and Advocates Push Back on SRC Deal
The speeding train delivering a multi-million contract to yet another education vendor was temporarily halted, and eventually significantly scaled down, by parents and community members who had not been informed or consulted about this deal with the for-profit Catapult Learning, Inc. The Coalition of Special Education Advocates, comprised of over fifteen organizations including APPS and represented by attorneys from the Public Interest Law Center (PILCOP) and the Education Law Center (ELC,) demanded to meet with district staff to discuss the possible segregation of special needs children and how that would violate federal law, among other issues. Members of City Council, including Helen Gym and Derek Green, also sent a letter to the district addressing their concerns about IU-7.