Board Bars Public from Attending and Testifying, Then Hires Communications Consultants

Board of Education Action and Budget Meetings:   April 20, 2023

by Lisa Haver and Deborah Grill

With every meeting, the Board of Education finds new ways to enforce its mission of speaker suppression. Several APPS members who tried to sign up to speak at the action meeting found the window closed after just two hours.  APPS member Ilene Poses was not only barred from speaking but was barred from entering the auditorium when she arrived. Security told her that there was no more room in the auditorium. When she called those of us who had made it in, we counted over ten empty seats. Ilene was finally admitted along with several other people.    

The board pushes the public away both literally and figuratively. The staff tables in the front of the room set up an ever-expanding barrier between the board and the public. In an auditorium with an official capacity of 240, the board had only set up 82 seats. Lisa Haver asked the board to explain that when she testified; she got no answer.

Another manifestation of speaker suppression is the board’s allowing vendors to take some of the community slots. At the action meeting, two representatives of Yondr signed up to give their sales pitch. That means two actual district stakeholders were excluded. The board voted on 54 official items, totaling spending of over $107 million, but they only allowed 28 members of the community on the general speakers list.   

Another tactic of speaker suppression was the board’s failure to post its meeting materials before the budget hearing. The board did not include the budget information–the only item on its budget hearing agenda–before the budget hearing held just prior to the action meeting.  Sure, people can sign up to speak, but how can we comment on or ask questions on a budget we haven’t had any opportunity to review?  

Ilene Poses contributed to this report. 

Watlington Passes the Buck Again
After more than four months, the ongoing school selection snafu remains unresolved. Last month students and educators rallied outside 440, and they testified about the loss of teachers at their schools because of the administration’s failure to assign all of the students who applied. Schools should not have to suffer this kind of disruption, with teachers being force-transferred, going through the site-selection process–then waiting to see whether the transfer has been rescinded. The Inquirer first reported on this issue in January.  Watlington invoked his all-purpose solution: to distribute another survey and gather some more focus groups. This time, he is also hiring the Accenture consulting company to facilitate this. He didn’t say how much that will cost, and none of the board members asked. How has the district–4 months later–not fixed it?  The board should stop accepting Watlington’s excuses and make sure that this is resolved before their next meeting in May.   

Lamberton Teachers Testify About Hostile Work Environment
A large contingent of Lamberton Elementary teachers, accompanied by PFT staffers, came to ask the board to take action on an increasingly dangerous situation at their school: a verbally abusive principal who has created a hostile environment for everyone in that school community. Several teachers cited examples of the principal’s harassment. They made clear that this was a dire situation. The principal has been verbally abusive to Lamberton staff on several occasions and in front of students. One of the many examples they cited: the principal refused to serve breakfast to students with special needs after their bus arrived late. BM Cecelia Thompson interrupted after the second Lamberton teacher testified, asking whether this was the proper venue, but President Reginald Streater allowed them to continue. They told the board that they had taken all of the necessary steps and followed the chain of command for months, with no response from the administration.  Watlington himself  ignored a letter they sent him on March 31. Watlington said he would take action, but, echoing Thompson, said that this was not the appropriate venue. The teachers asked when he would respond to them, but he refused to answer. 

APPS member Deborah Grill testified that April is School Library Month, but the district’s having only the equivalent of only one full-time librarian is hardly cause for celebration.  She urged the board to follow the lead of school districts in Boston, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles that have already taken steps to restore school libraries and librarians in all of their schools because they recognize that “restoring libraries and librarians is an important step towards eliminating the inequalities of their students’ education.” 
Lisa Haver asked why the board would be spending over $1 million on contracts with consulting companies (Items 53 and 54) for the purpose of helping both board members and district staff to communicate with the public. None of the board members recognized the irony of considering this at a meeting that allowed only 28 community speakers and barred anyone who tried to sign up but found the window closed after only two hours.  Teacher Kristin Luebbert, also citing those consultant contracts, told the board that what they choose to spend money on “clearly demonstrates to us who you are and what you value.”

Voting Procedures Confusing to Both Public and 440 Staff
The board commenced voting at 9:45 PM and ended at 10:03. They spent 18 minutes, out of a total of 7 hours and 30 minutes, on deliberating and voting on 51 items.  Only 5% of the total time (action and budget meetings) was spent on approving spending over $100 million of taxpayer money.   

Items 12, 13 and 51 were withdrawn by staff.  The 51 remaining items, having been placed in the “consent agenda”,  were voted on in one roll call vote. According to the explanation given to us by board staff when Wilkerson was president, the consent agenda includes items that board members have designated before the meeting as ones that will require no deliberation, although they retain the right to pull them out during the meeting. Tonight that agenda included all 51 remaining items:  Items 1-11, 13-36, 38-50, and 52-54.  Streater gave instructions that each board member should vote Yes or No on the consent agenda; they would get 2 minutes to provide a reason for their No vote or Abstention on any item. After a motion was passed to vote on the consent agenda, Streater asked if board members had any comments or questions on the agenda items.  

BM Julia Danzy asked about insurance coverage on Item #3, but the staff member who answered did not use the microphone and could not be heard by the audience.

BM Lisa Salley said that she was voting No on Item #54 because she felt the district needed a vendor with “more digitized experience” to help the board in its efforts to communicate with the public.  BM Mallory Fix Lopez stated that she was voting no on Item #53 because she was concerned about the  adequacy of customer service support for multilingual families. 

BM Leticia Egea-Hinton indicated that she would vote Yes on Item # 54, acknowledging that the board did need help with communications.  BM Thompson stated that she would vote no on Item # 54 and many other items. She objected to the current process used to select the vendor which includes three board members and three district staff. Thompson felt that all of the board members should participate in these types of selections and that the board needed to change its procurement policy.  Streater explained that it would be a violation of the Sunshine Act if all the members participated in the selection in a non-public meeting.  At this point, Wilkerson asked Streater if he wanted to remove Item 54 from the consent agenda and vote on it separately.  He did not answer, and the vote on the consent agenda was taken.  All items passed.
APPS will be challenging this voting process.  It must be clear to the public how board members are voting and why.  Each item must have a separate roll call vote. Even General Counsel Lynn Rauch had a hard time tallying the votes and had to ask Thompson to repeat her dissension and abstentions.  Board members also appear to be conflating abstentions with recusals. If they are not voting Yes or No for reasons of possible conflict, they must state what that conflict is or may be.  (We are presenting them here as separate votes for the purpose of clarity.)

Items 1, 3 through 11:  Passed unanimously.
Item 2:   Passed 6-0-3,  Fix Lopez, Salley and Thompson abstaining.  
Items 13, 14, 16-25, 29, 30, 32, 33, 36, 47, 50:  Passed 8-1, Thompson dissenting. 
Items 15, 26, 27, 28, 31,32, 34, 35, 38-46, 49, 52:  Passed unanimously. 
Item 53: Passed 6-3, Lam, Fix Lopez, and Salley dissenting.
Item 54:  Passed 7-2, Thompson and Salley dissenting. 
Item 48:   Passed 6-0-3, Fix Lopez, Salley and Thompson abstained. (General Lynn Rauch did not include this item in her roll call summary.) 

President Streater then asked whether members had any issues for consideration at future meetings. Several were raised. Fix Lopez said she wanted the board to discuss more services for recent immigrants; that topic had been raised in public testimony at the March action meeting.  Thompson said she wanted to talk about the procedure dealing with situations in which school staff “think they have a disagreement” with school leadership. 

Streater announced the next meeting of the Policy Committee on April 27 at 4 PM. The one remaining board committee meets only twice a year. 
The meeting adjourned at 10: 09 PM, seven hours after the beginning of the first public meeting.