APPS News: May 2018


by Karel Kilimnik
May 7, 2018

Lame-Duck SRC Continues Spending Spree

The lame-duck SRC, moving towards its final day on June 30th, continues to hold fast to its worst practices of lack of transparency and public notification.  After several emails from APPS to SRC Commissioners, the Resolution List for the April 19thmeeting finally appeared on the district website on April 12.  According to the negotiated, court-ordered settlement between the SRC and APPS on the district’s pattern of violations of the PA Sunshine Act, Resolutions must be posted at least 14 days before the meeting. It is truly baffling as to why this occurred for this particular meeting as this was posted: The heading on the Description simply states:  “This meeting of the School Reform Commission is a Budget Hearing for the purpose of hearing public comment on the FY19 Budgets. There are no action items. The School Reform Commission is scheduled to vote on the FY19 Budget at its Action Meeting on May 24, 2018.”  We expect the incoming School Board to do a better job of informing the public without having to be reminded.

As Diane Payne reportedin the April 26 edition of Ears on the SRC, “Part-Time Commissioner” Bill Green arrived an hour and a half after the meeting began.  Despite missing staff presentations on the two charters up for a vote (Eastern University and Franklin Towne Middle CS), as well as almost all public speakers, Green voted on all resolutions, including one to approve the deeply flawed Franklin Towne Middle Charter School’s “revised” application. Despite the Charter Schools Office report citing almost thirty instances of FTCMS failing to address concerns in the original evaluation, and despite CSO Director DawnLynne Kacer stating that there were few “substantial” differences in the revised application, the SRC voted 3-1 to approve “with conditions”, with Commissioner Marge Neff voting to deny. The actual revision came from the SRC, who took it upon themselves to come up with almost twenty conditions, most of which were not read into the record and were not revealed to the public until the day after the meeting.

What none of the commissioners ever told the public was WHY they felt the need to go to such lengths to approve this new charter. It seems they are sending a message to other charter applicants: Denied at the first charter school application hearing? No problem. Submit a barely modified revised application and you can count on us to approve, with no justification or explanation, and guarantee your CEO and investors years of funding.  So far, Philadelphia Hebrew Charter and APM Charter have submitted revised applications to the SRC; they will probably be voted on in May.

Strawberry Mansion High School Supporters Fight Back

APPS members were invited to attend a community meeting after word spread throughout the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood that the Hite administration planned to close Strawberry Mansion as a comprehensive high school. Students and parents had already heard that the high school would not be accepting 9thgraders for the 2018-19 school year. There was no mention of these actions on the district website, no flyers or robo-calls made to parents, and no outreach to the surrounding neighborhood. A meeting at the school with Assistant Superintendent Eric Becoats, attended by over fifty members of the SMHS community, did little to clarify the district’s plans. Community members expressed their anger and frustration at this disrespectful treatment by the district. After several people asked whether the plan to “phase out” the school and bring in outsourced programs was in the planning state or the implementation state, Becoats admitted that the district had already moved into the implementation stage—before a single community meeting had been held. As a result students, teachers, parents, neighbors, and education advocates have organized to keep Strawberry Mansion High School open as a comprehensive high school, not as a building with unknown programs and vendors. .

Strawberry Mansion supporters rallied and testified at both the April 19 and the April 26 SRC meetings; they demanded that the district keep the comprehensive high school open, enroll 9thgraders, and restore all lost services and programs.  Both Dr. Hite and Mayor Kenney have stated that there will be school closures in the coming years. No official announcements of any school closure have been made. Calling it a “phasing out” does not change the fact that Strawberry Mansion High would cease to exist. A school is not a building—a school is the students, staff and the educational program. 

 Dr. Hite maintains that Strawberry Mansion High School is not being closed since the building will remain open for outside vendors to run Alternative School programs as well as EOP (Educational Options Program) for over aged and under accredited adults. Nine of 15 speakers at the April 19 SRC meeting addressed concerns about his proposed changes.

In other business, the 4-member SRC, including two interim appointees, approved 98 resolutions,  sending $24 million into the pockets of outside contractors and vendors.

 Welcome to Our World, Abington!

The Philadelphia Inquirer, in several news stories and commentaries, reported that the Abington School Board had entered into a secret deal with wealthy Abington High School alum Steven Schwarzman.  The Blackstone Group CEO’s $25 million “donation” included a list of demands, including renaming his alma mater “Abington Schwarzman High School”. The Abington community expressed its outrageat the next board meeting, and the board rescinded the deal and actually apologized to the community.

Of course, secret meetings regularly occur in the School District of Philadelphia School, and have for years; we will cite only a couple of examples here.  In November 2011, the SRC approved a $2.5 million grant from the Gates Foundation that came with a list of mandates including school closures and charter expansion; no public meetings were ever held to discuss it.  From Fall 2016 to Spring 2017, high-level district officials met in secret with charter operators and investors, including representatives from the Philadelphia School Partnership and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. A commentary by Deb Grill and Lisa Haver,published in the April 22 Sunday Inquirer, pointed out the double standard of accountability between city and suburban districts. Underfunded urban school districts have been treated as low-hanging fruit by members of the Billionaire Boys Club—Eli Broad, Bill Gates, the Walton Family, Mark Zuckerberg— to conduct their education experiments at the expense of our students.

Pay Up PPA!

APPS has joined the recently formed Pay Up PPA Coalitionthat includes POWER, Parents United for Public Education, and the Our City Our Schools Coalition. For years, the state-controlled Philadelphia Parking Authority has been derelict in sending funds to the district.  This is the same PPA that provided the golden parachute retirement package for former director and serial sexual harasser Vince Fenerty. According to State Auditor Eugene DePasquale,  “ mismanagement and corruption at the Philadelphia Parking Authority has cheated the School District out of nearly $78 million over the last five years.”

Pay Up PPA Coalition demands:

Provide the School District of Philadelphia with $25 million annually in recurring and sustainable funding.

 Decrease expenses and channel those savings to the schools.  There has been egregious mismanagement and governance at the PPA.  Its operation is top-heavy and executives’ salaries are shamefully high.  It is a patronage pit.   

 Designate additional revenue streams for the schools.  Currently, schools receive a portion of the revenue from on-street parking based on a state legislated formula and from current Uber/Lyft fees.  In order to reach $25 million, PPA will need to identify additional revenue streams.  It can and should do that.

 Become an accountable and transparent public agency worthy of the public trust.  The PPA must clean up its act.  As a start, it should: report on staff salaries by job title, make a full organizational chart public, make public the findings of various consultants on its operations, and routinely report to Philadelphia City Council.  The structure and practices of the board should meet standards of best practice