Ears on the Board of Education: January 26, 2023
by Diane Payne
Before the vote on the three Charter School renewals appearing on this agenda, President Streater made a statement about his concerns surrounding the interrelatedness of Charter School Boards, Charter Management Operators, and attorneys. He made clear that overlapping Boards and attorneys do not provide the adequate protection needed to be good stewards of public funds. This is one of many aspects of charter operations that are never publicly discussed except by APPS. It is almost impossible to follow the money funneled into charter schools and know who is benefitting from public funds and whose pockets are being filled with the many interconnected groups. (More detail on this will appear in the voting section.)
All Board members were present except Julia Danzy. Both student reps, and the superintendent were present as well. Board Member Thompson attended via zoom. There was one registered student speaker, four written testimonies, and twenty general registered speakers. Three of those registered speakers were not present when called to speak. Once again, mic trouble made it difficult for in-person attendees to hear Thompson on zoom. After the speaker portion of the meeting, the Board took a 10-minute break to switch mics.
Board meetings and agendas can be viewed on the Board’s website.
Board President Comments on Pending Legal Action
President Streater asked the board and the audience to acknowledge high school student Kaheem Bailey-Taylor, Jr., an ROTC member at Philadelphia Military Academy, for service to the community after his actions saved the life of his friend and fellow student. This student used the life-saving skills he learned in school to aid the gunshot victim in his neighborhood this past August.
Streater addressed the Board’s recent filing of a lawsuit against the City to stop the implementation of a law the City passed several months ago to oversee environmental protections within school buildings. When announcing this lawsuit on January 20th, Streater said the new law could impede school openings and runs counter to state and federal guidelines the district must follow.
Streater stated that some of the criticism lobbed at the District for initiating this action assumed the District had not attempted to address these concerns prior to the lawsuit. He wanted to note for the record that the District had ongoing communication with City officials about the pitfalls of the law but the District’s concerns went unaddressed.
What Streater failed to acknowledge was the ongoing and longstanding lack of transparency around toxic school conditions leading to the passage of this law. Maybe a law would never have been needed if the city didn’t have to wait for a Philadelphia Inquirer series exposing the toxic conditions in schools.
Even after this Inquirer piece, the District continued to keep the public in the dark. A series of rolling school closures (often forced after building staff complained and walked out due to ongoing toxic conditions) continued to plague the District. The Ben Franklin/SLA renovation and subsequent closure due to toxic conditions was both shocking in scope and expense, not to mention the District’s attempt to keep it hidden from public and Board view. It even resulted in a scathing Office of Inspector General report. Now the District will engage in another costly legal struggle when the District’s own actions are at the root of the problem.
Streater turned the mic over to Thompson for the Parent and Community Advisory Council (PCAC) update; she reported that PCAC members organized food drives, participated in Board meetings, and worked on organizing the PCAC calendar. It is really disturbing to hear this report every month with such generic and uninformative content. PCAC has been used as one Board defense of its speaker suppression policy. Arbitrarily, and without public discussion or vote, the Board ignored decades of precedent and made draconian revisions to their speaker policy, limiting both how many members of the public the Board hears every month (now capped at 30) and reducing speaker time (from 3 minutes to 2). The Board is choosing to spend money on an outside law firm and take the fight to silence the public to court rather than acknowledge suppression is undemocratic and the opposite of community engagement. The ACLU has agreed to represent APPS and UrbEd in this case and it is currently before a judge to determine if the Board can continue this suppression. Wilkerson, in her capacity as Board president, pointed to PCAC as an alternative avenue for public engagement. Listening to Thompson’s report each month fully illuminates the real outcomes the Board is seeking; controlled, out-of-public-view meetings that have no discernible impact.
Finally, Streater introduced a new procedure for the structure of the superintendent’s presentation portion of the meeting. Following the superintendent’s remarks, Board members will be given two minutes to comment or question; administration would have two minutes to respond. Question rounds would be divided into three categories: student achievement, safety, and facilities. Any unanswered questions can be raised in a subsequent round. Board members and district administration would be monitored by the same 2-minute timer used for public speakers. No Board member objected to being restricted when asking questions or making points regarding the Superintendent’s presentation. The Board voted by consensus to approve this new procedure. (No discussion or vote was utilized when the Board surprised the public with the speaker suppression changes.)
District Stakeholders Are Not Customers
Superintendent Watlington presented a “progress update” on his strategic plan timeline, which is now in Phase 3. Watlington projected a completed plan by the May action meeting. He again noted the reorganization in some administrative departments. Most disturbing is the introduction of a “Customer Service” department led by a member of his cabinet. Customer service is a corporate model in which schools are businesses. Our students and families should not be demoted to the level of customers.
Advisory groups, including staff, students, parents, and community members invited by the administration will convene next week to provide support and input in the development of this plan. No information was shared about who is in these groups or how they were selected. Watlington identified five key areas: keeping 440 in service of schools; developing better means of public engagement; identifying what the district must stop doing and things the district must start doing; align research-based resources where most needed; evaluate superintendent and cabinet-level positions success in implementing this plan.
Watlington highlighted several administrative priorities: safety, student attendance, teacher attendance, and dropout rates (the PowerPoint Watlington narrated was not available to the public before or during the meeting.) Watlington said the district is trying to remedy a sharp drop in teacher attendance. He claimed that the administration is not taking a punitive approach, but the administration is still writing up staff members for taking as few as three sick days.
The new method of 2-minute round robin questioning began with Board member inquiries into safety. Board Member Lam questioned what the district is doing about adults feeling safe in buildings. Chief Safety Officer Kevin Bethel’s answer was using the end of year survey responses to help inform decisions. Board member Salley asked what patterns are seen with young children involved in violence. Part of Bethel’s answer to this highlighted how the District falls short. He said they are looking at the instances of children in schools involved in violence then walking backwards to try and determine what was missed. This is a good strategy. But unfortunately, after walking backwards and discovering all of the missing resources in that child’s educational experience, a common district practice will be to assign more dollars to trauma-informed coping skills rather than fixing the lack of resources that inherently are related to actually helping that child and all children. This method puts the onus on the children to learn to manage their trauma rather than the adults in charge shouldering the responsibility to provide what children need. (See today’s Action Item 16)
All Board questions and answers can be viewed on the Board video of this meeting.
APPS Members Urge Board to Deny New Charter Applications
Three members of APPS spoke in defense of public education and one member submitted written testimony. Four APPS’ members attended the meeting in-person.
APPS co-founder Lisa Haver outlined the many reasons why the Board should vote No on the four new charter school applications, especially the one submitted by the Global Leadership Academy organization, whose combined annual salary and compensation for its two CEOs has reached approximately $750,000. She pointed out the many deficiencies and concerns about the application, concluding that the “only reason this application would be approved is because of politics.”
APPS members Lynda Rubin and Barbara Dowdall advocated for more in-school staff as a means of addressing student trauma. APPS member Cheri Micheau, a longstanding ELL advocate, instructor, and administrator, sent in powerful written testimony. Her questions to the Board around the progress of the 21st Century initiative to place CTE programs in 3 district high schools, the need for the District to provide regular reports on initiatives and reorganizations, pointed suggestions to the Office of Multilingual Curriculum and Programs to improve EL services, and questions to the FACE office on the hiring of Bilingual Counseling Assistants (BCA) should be read to be appreciated. All APPS comments can be viewed at https://appsphilly.net/
Goals and Guardrails take a break
This month, Goals and Guardrails were sidelined for additional focus on the Superintendent’s Priority Area Update. This continued the discussion (mostly about attendance) from the Superintendent’s earlier presentation which seemed somewhat redundant and harkened back to Board member Salley’s question of “where’s the urgency?” Some new information (which wasn’t surprising information) noted that patterns of attendance problems existed within the Districts’ Networks (patterns that you would expect to see). For example, the Opportunity Network led in attendance problems. This is the Network that services students who dropout of school.
An important point was made by Fix Lopez when she asked how many attendance coaches are currently in the district (17) and how many do we need. She went on to say if attendance is a priority there should be a shift in the budget to reflect it. Attendance coaches should NOT BE A PRINCIPAL DISCRETIONARY BUDGETED ITEM. If it is a priority, it should be a centrally funded budget item.
APPS has repeatedly advocated for important positions within school communities to be centrally funded; most notably Certified Teacher Librarians (CTL). The District is down to about 4 schools with a functioning school library staffed with a CTL. This idea was also echoed by many members of the principals’ union (CASA) when they advocated for 5 centrally funded positions:assistant principal, math and literacy lead teachers, special-education compliance monitors, and climate managers. Designating a position as discretionary forces principals into an untenable position of deciding what essential position to cut and creates a false narrative of what principals want in their schools.
Streater Addresses Questionable Charter Practices During Voting
Items 4, 5, 7: passed unanimously.
Item 24, 5-year renewal for First Philadelphia Preparatory Charter School; Item 25, 5-year renewal for Tacony Academy Charter School; Item 26, 5-year renewal for Philadelphia Charter for Arts and Sciences: All failed 7-1, Thompson dissenting. At the October Board meeting, when all three of these items were originally posted, Streater asked District Counsel Rauch whether voting to deny a charter renewal automatically initiated non-renewal proceedings. Rauch replied that it did not, it was only a denial of a proposed renewal agreement. In an unprecedented move, the Board then voted to deny the renewals; two of the three items were unanimous. No one elaborated or explained why that question was asked, including then-President Wilkerson. The public was left in the dark, as it is on most charter issues before the Board. (Thompson voted to deny these renewals in October, but did not explain why she changed her votes this time.)
Streater read a long statement on all three items; noting that the practices of the management companies and attorneys representing all three charters raise concerns among the Board members about possible ethical violations. He said that after the October meeting, the Board received communications from members of the public including representatives of the impacted charter schools. He said he was making tonight’s statement to clarify his concerns. The main concern: the legal firm representing the management company also represents the schools’ boards. As a lawyer himself, Streater said, he knew it was very important to maintain separation between those entities; anything less jeopardizes the autonomy of the boards and calls into question fiduciary responsibilities to both the students of the school and the taxpayers.
While encouraged by this action, we note that APPS has been calling out both the SRC and the Board to end these practices for years. There is no penalty imposed on charter schools that fail to sign their charter agreement, and no time limit on an expired agreement. APPS has called on the Board to hold renewal hearings where these types of questionable practices can be brought to public scrutiny. Whether the Board will force a change in this potentially fraudulent practice is unclear, but it was refreshing to see the governing body raise it.
If Streater and the Board are serious about real charter reform, they can next address the incestuous relationship between charters and their real estate management companies. The public has little understanding of how those companies and the CMOs operate and what they cost the taxpayers. (In February, APPS will post reports on the four new charter school applications including two by Aspira. Many questions will be raised in the Aspira report about their real estate management company.)
Item 2: Passed unanimously.
Items 8, 9, 13: Passed unanimously
Item 14: Passed 7-1, Thompson dissenting.
Item 18: Passed 7-1, Thompson dissenting. She questioned why this copy work cannot be done in-house rather than outsourced.
Item 23: Passed unanimously.
Items 1, 3, 10-12, 15, 16, 17, 19-22: Passed unanimously.
The Action Meeting adjourned and the Intermediate Unit (IU) convened with one Item on the agenda, which passed unanimously. Thompson said that after attending an IU meeting in a neighboring county, she concluded that the Board is not doing what it should as an intermediate unit and that it was time to make some changes. Salley concurred, noting that this issue was raised at last month’s meeting.
President Streater notified the public that the Board would be appearing before City Council on Tuesday, January 31st at 10:00 AM for the required Board update to City Council. The public is invited to attend and to testify.
The Board spent $32,796,194 in contracts at this meeting.
Meeting adjourned at 8:55 PM, just shy of 5 hours.