Board Caves to Political Pressure, Renews Failing Charter

Ears on the Board of Education: December 9, 2021

by Diane Payne

APPS filed a formal objection, read during the meeting, to the Board’s violation of the PA Sunshine Act, this time for voting in secret on the charter renewal of Universal Audenried Charter High School. Why does the Board continue the legacy of the SRC by conducting all charter business in secret?

Since the dissolution of the state-imposed School Reform Commission, the hope of District staff, students, families, and community members for a more responsive school board have been dashed repeatedly by the members of the Board. They eliminated all of the Committees except one, eliminating an important venue for deliberation and dialogue. They recently reduced the Policy Committee meetings from quarterly to twice a year. A pattern of Board disenfranchisement continues with its violations of the PA Sunshine Act. The Board refuses to post the full text of any charter school item until after they vote. They post the full content the day after the vote, with no notice that it was previously not posted, thus falsifying the public record. The Board bars people from speaking before they vote on Action Items. At this meeting, the Board added to this list knowingly deliberating on public business in executive session. 

Hite responded this way to a question from Board Member Salley on staffing issues (Board video timestamp 1:23): “We shared with Board members during executive session what we thought was a comprehensive review around staffing and some of the steps we were taking to insure that we were trying to deal with what is likely a new normal for the foreseeable future just given the constraints around COVID and the labor market.”  Earlier in the meeting District Counsel Lynn Rauch noted for the record, “The Board of Education met in executive session earlier today to discuss personnel and employment, privileged and confidential matters” (timestamp 14:30).  Rauch gave false information on the record when she failed to include Hite’s presentation in that list. APPS had sent a letter the day before reminding the Board that staff presentations are not among the permitted topics in executive sessions. Staffing shortage issues are neither privileged nor confidential. Why did the Board feel the need to withhold this information from the public—-many of whom have asked the Board about it in both written and oral testimony? 

Board member Lisa Salley asked Hite to provide the Board with a presentation on district staffing issues in the last three consecutive Action Meetings.  At the November meeting, she patiently but persistently noted her repeated request. Each month, Hite promised a presentation in those public meetings, but that presentation was given behind closed doors. School district business is not to be conducted in secret.  Who will hold this Board accountable? Neither the mayor who appoints them nor the members of City Council who are supposed to oversee the Board will step up. Grass roots organizations do not have the deep pockets to pursue legal litigation. Does that mean the Board can conduct itself however it wants–even if that means breaking the law?

Board Members Must Be Fully Present

All eight current Board members answered the initial roll call. Some members of the Board continue to take advantage of the remote meetings to remain invisible throughout the meeting or to vanish and later reappear. In this meeting, there was no indication, other than her occasional voice, that Board Member Cecelia Thompson was present.  The public never saw her face, and there was no box with her name in it. There was no way for anyone to know whether Thompson was present and listening to the public speakers. This is unacceptable. The Board went back to remote meetings this month on questionable grounds. Any member whose face and name are not visible for the entirety of the meeting should not be considered present. 

(Board meeting materials and agendas are available on the Board meeting page, and you can watch the recording of this meeting on the Board home page.)

President Wilkerson offered a passing acknowledgement of gun violence and  COVID issues before wishing everyone happy holidays.  She did not name the students who were gunned down or ask for a moment of silence. Vice President Egea-Hinton gave a brief update on the superintendent search.  She noted that the 11-member search advisory committee has been selected and the superintendent job description has been posted. Board Member Mallory Fix Lopez reported on the Fair Funding lawsuit currently underway in Harrisburg with a request to support this effort by attending the second Fair Funding rally taking place on the capitol steps on December 14th at 11:30 a.m.  

Policy 911 Still Under Review

Although the Policy Committee did not meet in the time between the November and December action meetings, Committee Chair Maria McColgan did give an update (longer than the 38-second report she gave in November). McColgan again argued that the proposed Policy 911, one of the policies the Board will vote on next month, is not a new policy but an amended version of a present policy.  APPS raised the alarm just before the November 4 Policy Committee meeting about the potential for District employees to be disciplined for speaking to the press. Some elected officials took up the issue and raised their concerns about what Fix Lopez called a “gag order”.  At this meeting, Fix Lopez again expressed her concerns about “intent versus impact”.  McColgan and Hite both repeatedly assured the Board that there was no intent to gag staff and that this policy only addresses anyone speaking as an official representative of the School District.  Fix Lopez remained adamant in her concern about how this policy may be carried out, including reprisals against outspoken District staff.  Hite cited a few districts that had similar policies, but Fix Lopez argued that just referring to other district’s policies without actually understanding the specifics of those policies was not relevant.  

Fix Lopez raised the issue that the proposed Policy 138, English Language Development/Bilingual Education Program, did not include content on language access (including materials access, family access, and  interpretation access). Fix Lopez recalled that she had asked 440 staff very specific questions about this at the November 4 Policy meeting, yet none of what was discussed was added.  District Chief of Staff Alicia Prince asked for a clearer explanation. Fix Lopez reminded Prince that “there was a whole meeting” (November 4) where this was explained and asked whether Prince needed that in writing. Prince replied that she “misunderstood” and that she could definitely accommodate the missing pieces that Fix Lopez identified.  It was suggested that this part of ELL requirements should be a separate policy, and Prince agreed to work on that and have it ready by the Spring meeting.  

Fix Lopez made a brief statement endorsing a policy that would enact a standard, district-wide voter registration curriculum. Students, teachers and community members have been advocating for this policy for over two years.  Fix Lopez said she expected to see action on this in the near future, but said that she is not sure whether it will take the form of a policy or a resolution.  When McColgan indicated the Policy Committee would address it in the Spring, Fix Lopez said it will probably be sooner. The next Policy Committee meeting is not until April 2022, so the soonest a policy could be approved by the Board would be June 2022. Why has the Board put this off for over two years? 

The Board must conduct its reorganization every December, and the  Board voted unanimously to maintain President Wilkerson and Vice-President Egea-Hinton in their present positions. Board Members then took turns in praising both Wilkerson and Egea-Hinton. Several stated that their reason for staying on the Board was to serve the children. Members of the public wonder whether that includes making sure children are safe and not going into toxic buildings every day since no one on the Board responded to Parent Laurie Mazer’s concerns about that. 

Superintendent Should Answer Board Questions

Superintendent Hite began by noting that December 10th is National Human Rights Day. That is fitting because beginning on December 13th there will be a non-binary gender option on both Infinte Campus and Google Classroom.  Students will be free to choose their gender option.  This is in support of Policy 252 ensuring the safety of transgender and gender non-conforming students.

In relation to the city’s alarming gun violence epidemic, Hite reiterated the programs that he has described at previous fall Board meetings to address this escalating problem: Police safety zones, safe corridors, and increased Septa police presence at the Broad/Olney transportation hub.  

Some of the pressing issues missing from Hite’s report:   

  1. A tribute to the students lost to gun violence, or even the names of those students. 
  2. Any new efforts to address gun violence.
  3. Any presentation on the $58,000,000 expenditure for a new substitute service provider and the reason the District is switching providers–that Kelly Services has not fulfilled its contract. 
  4. A presentation on the three-time-ask by Board Member Salley on the district staffing crisis–which Wilkerson specifically told APPS in her email that Hite would be giving.

Fix Lopez began questions to the Superintendent by opening a discussion around the new school selection process.  One issue raised by students and parents is that writing scores are given in decimal form but only the whole number counts—there is no rounding either up or down.  If your score is 21.9 then it counts as 21.  In addition, there is no appeal process based on writing sample scores.  Appeals are only considered if something is  alleged as unfair such as an inaccurate recommendation.  Board member Streater (in response to much parental uproar about an algorithm-graded student writing samples) justified the Hite administration’s position by asking whether the reason for a computer generated grade as opposed to human graders was concern about human subjectivity and bias, and Hite of course agreed.  Fix Lopez then pointed out that there is a vast amount of research questioning the efficacy of computer-generated grading. 

Speaker Suppression Continues

The speaker registration window for this meeting closed less than 24 hours after it opened.  In addition to the seven students and thirty adults, City Councilmember Isaiah Thomas spoke.  Only one speaker, APPS’ Lisa Haver, testified about one of the thirty-six official items on the agenda.  How many people who wanted to be heard on other items were denied an opportunity to speak? Of those thirty speakers, six did not show up. The Board has hidden behind a wall that they built between themselves and the public they promised to serve.  Two APPS members spoke in defense of public education, and two sent in written testimony.  All APPS testimonies can be viewed on the APPS website

Parents United for Public Education has been on the front lines of advocating for toxic-free schools and open communication on District environment information.  They have held  rallies on the steps of 440 before the last three action meetings in order to raise awareness around the conditions in the schools our students and staff inhabit and to pressure the Board to do something about them.  PUPE member Laurie Mazer addressed the Board on the continual misinformation coming from the Hite administration.  For months, beginning last spring, Hite repeatedly and publicly stated that the District would be opening a public website, Donesafe, that would post up-to-date building condition and compliance information.  Hite walked back this promise at the November Action meeting, leaving advocates once again in an information limbo with their mics muted and no way to respond. These parents are advocating for the safety of all children and the adults who teach and serve them. Mazer also pointed out there is no accounting of how or where the District is spending the $2 billion it received in federal funds. None of the Board member’s responded to Mazer or asked Hite to explain. 

Stephanie King, parent advocate for equitable access to fairly funded public schools, found herself in the rare position of applauding the District for changing the rules on special-admit and magnet school admissions.  King praised the Board’s efforts to level the playing field for students long pushed to the sidelines in their efforts to gain admission. She did point out the shortcomings in the district’s plan such as algorithms grading writing samples. As she has in the past, King cited district data to highlight the inequity built into the district’s long-standing methods of granting students seats in highly desirable schools while ignoring neighborhood schools.  

Other parents and students again testified against the changes and have asked for a moratorium. Parents from some elementary and middle schools, many from GW Carver, told the Board their children were told that as long as they did well in the middle school grades, they would have no problem attending the high school. Chief of Students Supports Karyn Lynch admitted last month that she and the District were aware of these promises but did nothing to stop principals from making them.

Lisa Haver asked the Board why it would be renewing a charter school that failed to meet all academic, financial and organizational standards. Does a school that expelled 37 students–without due process–deserve another five years? A school that failed to get the legally required background checks from all faculty and staff? That engaged in questionable, if not fraudulent, financial practices? Haver asked why the Board had negotiated a settlement on Audenried High School with Universal in secret, so that no member of the public could comment on what the Board was agreeing to. No answer from the Board. 

Goals and Guardrails

The Board spent 2 hours and 40 minutes analyzing data. People who wanted to be present for the official voting had to wait until just before 11 PM. 

The Board looked at Guardrail 2, Enriching and Well-rounded School Experiences and Guardrail 3, Partnering with Parents/Family Members (video timestamp 4:08).

Guardrail 2 has two indicators: 1) number of K-8 students enrolled in an arts elective and 2) number of high school students that are involved in co curricular activities.  Indicator 1 surpassed the target; there were only a few schools who failed to have students enrolled in an arts class.  When asked why any school would fail this category, Hite and staff explained that small schools struggle to offer broad curricular choices or possibly interest in these electives may not be present due to the nature of the school (CTE type schools).  Indicator 2 failed to meet its target due to COVID issues. 

Guardrail 3 has two indicators: 1) percentage of schools with a high district wide survey return and 2) number of schools with a SAC (School Advisory Council) that meets at least 3 times a year.  Indicator 1 is not on track.  At this juncture Hite indicated that the charter school sector had higher scores on the parent surveys than district schools.  When questioned by Board members, Hite offered a vague explanation that charter operators have more success with parent engagement. He did not acknowledge that public schools open their doors to all students and families; charter schools have been cited in almost every evaluation for barriers to enrollment and high numbers of expulsions without due process. Indicator 2 is on track.  Under questioning, Hite acknowledged that the components needed to meet this requirement do not indicate how well a School Advisory Council (SAC) is functioning.  As long as there is a SAC on the books and they meet three times a year (the minimum requirements),  the school gets credit for this indicator.  Neither Hite nor the Board mentioned the Philadelphia Home and School Council (PHSC). PHSC is a parent-led (not District-led) organization with roots dating back to 1897 while SACs are district-led parent organizations.   

Board Again Renews Substandard Renaissance Charter

The Board commenced voting at 11 PM–seven hours into the meeting.
Items 1, 4, 8, and 29 were withdrawn.  Action Item 3 is for review only; those policies will be voted on in January. 
Items 6,7, and 9: Passed unanimously.
Item 35:  Passed unanimously.

Item 36:  The Board took a secret vote to approve a five-year renewal for Universal Audenried that passed 7-1, with Fix Lopez dissenting. Prior to this vote, District Counsel Lynn Rauch read into the record APPS’ official objection to this vote as “a violation of the Sunshine Act, a falsification of the public record, and a betrayal of the public trust.”  The full text of this Action Item was not posted at the time of the vote in direct contradiction to the procedure laid out in the PA Sunshine Act which protects the public’s right to view the full text of all items being voted on by any governing Board.  Despite the hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars that flow to charter schools every year, the media pays almost no attention to the renewal of substandard charters.  The Board acts with no checks on its behavior by the media or by any elected official. APPS is the only organization witnessing, reporting, and objecting to the Board’s illegal actions.  At the onset of this meeting, President Wilkerson read a statement about the withdrawal of Item 4, the original Audenried Item, postponed from November’s meeting, that required Audenried to comply with the surrender clause it agreed to three years ago after failing to meet standards in every category. The Board, without explanation, voted to approve yet another contract with yet another surrender clause and more meaningless conditions. The Board, with this action, has rendered surrender clauses meaningless and unenforceable.  The Board members who voted to approve did not explain why it was acceptable for Universal to expel 37 students without due process, acceptable to score in the lowest SPR Achievement categories every year, acceptable to allow Audenried employees to remain at the school without the required child-protection background checks, and acceptable to allow a person who was no longer on the payroll to sign checks for the school. Only Fix Lopez cited some of these transgressions when she cast her No vote. When Universal took over Audenried in 2011, in the face of sustained community protests, the charter company promised to “effect dramatic change” in this neighborhood school.  The only dramatic thing here is the stunning failure of the Board to perform its duty. 

Item 10, $58,000,000 contract with ESS Northeast LLC for substitute staff services. Fix Lopez questioned whether this was the right time to be changing vendors. She asked whether the Hite administration had considered using more than one vendor.  Board Member Lisa Salley asked whether, within a month or two, Hite could report on strategies to address the substitute shortage.  Board Members don’t seem to find it problematic that Hite  ignores their requests for information month after month. But Hite’s assurances apparently satisfied the Board as this Item passed unanimously.

Item 27, $700,000 contract with Carson Valley Children’s Aid Society for case management support:  Passed unanimously.  Board Member Thompson asked whether the District was sure the data supported this vendor as a high-quality provider.  She reminded Hite of the abusive actions against children that took place at Wadsworth that resulted in one student’s death.  Thompson requested that the District provide a presentation on the effectiveness of this vendor. Chief of Student Support Karyn Lynch promised to deliver on this request. 

Items 2, 5, 11-26, 28, 30-34:  all passed unanimously except for  Item 34 which passed 6-2. Fix Lopez and Salley said that they were abstaining on Item 34; actually they were recusing because of relationships with one of the providers. 

Wilkerson announced that the new charter school application hearing is scheduled for December 21 at 2 PM.  Registration to speak at this meeting opens December 13th at 4:00 p.m.

The meeting ended at 11:35 p.m. after 7 ½ hours. The first bell at over thirty District schools rings at 7:30 a.m. It is doubtful that any of  the parents or teachers or students who have to get up by 6:30 am, just seven hours after adjournment, were able to attend the entire meeting.