Board Fails to Hold Hite Accountable

Ears on the Board of Education: July 15, 2021

by Diane Payne

President Wilkerson’s unexpected announcement of Board Member Angela McIver’s resignation, effective at the end of the meeting, took attendees by surprise.   Neither Wilkerson nor McIver gave any explanation, but McIver told the Inquirer later that she no longer has time for Board work as she must dedicate more time to her business, an extracurricular math program for elementary school students.  Wilkerson praised McIver, and McIver responded with praise for Board members, Dr. Hite and 440 staff.   McIver also thanked several advocacy organizations including  the Philadelphia Student Union, Urb Ed, and Racial Justice Organizing Committee and Melanated Educators.  McIver acknowledged APPS’ role as an “ever-present Board watchdog.” 

We now face another secret nominating process in which one person, not the electorate, will choose McIver’s replacement.  APPS has protested Mayor Kenney’s violations of the Sunshine Act as he directs his Nominating Committee, all of whom are chosen by him, to meet behind closed doors, shutting out the very people whose lives are affected by Board decisions.  We should sue, but grass-roots organizations don’t have deep pockets for lawyers, so we find ourselves shouting into the wind.  

Board members Leticia Egea-Hinton and Reginald Streeter were absent.  The two student Board representatives did not attend. 

Board Accepts Hite’s Rationalizations

Hite opened his brief remarks by stating that the State and City are reviewing the CDC guidelines about fully reopening schools in September.  When the state and city release an updated statement based on CDC guidelines, the District will notify the public. District efforts are geared toward implementing a full in-person reopening. Hite told the Board that before schools reopen,  “air purifiers” will be installed in classrooms and in common areas like auditoriums.  This announcement reminded many of last September’s “Fangate”,  in which Hite assured the Board and the public that special fans purchased by the District would monitor the air quality in classrooms.  APPS member/parent activist/District teacher Zoe Rooney found, with a little digging, that they were actually just cheap window fans that anyone could buy at hardware stores. Fangate was one of the many Hite deceits that the Board let slide. None of the Board members asked for further information about these air purifiers.

Hite then addressed the new bell schedule which the Board is allowing without any vote from them. The hastily formulated plan, which the Administration presented as “finalized” without any significant public input, created a social media uproar from parents and staff whose daily lives will be disrupted.  Extensive research showing the benefits of  a later start time for high school students have led other area districts to enact later start times for high school students, but the District has actually now imposed earlier bells for these students. (What happened to Hite’s repeated assertions that the District only adopts practices supported by research?)  As parent advocate Stephanie King pointed out in her Billy Penn commentary, published the day of this Action Meeting, working parents’ needs didn’t seem to be a consideration for the Hite administration.  King is now distributing a petition calling for a halt to bell schedule changes that can be accessed here.  Zoe Rooney looked at bell schedule data and filleted the District’s rationale for this disruptive change in this twitter thread.

Except for a few logistical questions from Board members Fix Lopez and Thompson, the Board allowed Hite to skate away from his responsibility for another looming disruption.  The Board did not ask for details about Hite’s assertion, repeated later in the meeting, that there may be some sort of before-school supervision for children of parents adversely affected by the time changes.  Parents and educators will not be surprised when Hite walks back this statement at future meetings by alleging he mis-spoke.  These bell schedule  “tiers” affect transportation at every school in the city, not just District schools.  But as principal union President Robin Cooper told the Inquirer, students’ academic needs should determine bus schedules, not the other way around.  

Board Votes to Adjust District Spending

The Board voted unanimously to approve the one Item on the agenda, Action Item One, even though the Item description did not specify what action the Board was voting to take. The Item alludes to the “Authorization of the Issuance and Sale of Tax and Revenue Anticipation Notes of the School District of Philadelphia, Fiscal Year 2022.”  This is also known as Trans.  In his presentation, District CFO Uri Monson explained that each year the District’s expenses do not match up to the revenue stream received from the City and State. In order to operate, the Board authorizes the District to  borrow needed funds in order to maintain District operations.  The borrowed money must be repaid within the school year.  

No Answers to Parent and Community Concerns on Bell Schedules 

District Counsel Lynn Rauch again preceded public speakers with the condescending remarks about “respecting speakers”–while this Board continues to  impose its speaker suppression policies.These changes constitute the Board’s effort to control public narrative and violate the State’s Sunshine Act.  Rather than work out a settlement with plaintiffs APPS and UrbEd, represented by the ACLU, the Board spends taxpayer dollars fighting the lawsuit

Community engagement has become a buzz phrase for this Board.  The six adult speakers, who still only get two minutes while students get three, included two APPS members. (Their full testimony can be found on APPS website.) Four of the five adult speakers addressed the bell schedule, as did the lone student speaker, Arthur Roth from Kearney Elementary, who told the Board that his school’s new 9 AM start time would be disruptive to his family.  “I hear you saying kids coming to testify are cute”, said Roth, “Well, you know what’s not cute? Watching my parents worry about how they’re going to have jobs they can’t get to because you ruined it.”

Lynda Rubin told the Board that she is “continually confused by the priorities this Board and Administration have regarding the education of children, because you make policy for students and families as if they’re all interchangeable, not individual. Bussing schedules, increasing on-line learning and standardized data when learning is best when it’s experiential, sharing with other students and can make sense to them.”  Rubin was pointing out how despite District surveys, parents and community members are seldom heard on issues when the Board cut her off. 

Lisa Haver asked whether corruption is only handing politicians money in envelopes in secret or could it also be the Board’s consistent failure, in plain sight,  to outsource contracts for questionable expenditures month after month or hold its highly paid superintendent accountable.  Haver cited the Ben Franklin/SLA debacle; the chaotic Extended School Year (ESY)  rollout last month, described by Hite administration spokesperson as a few “bumps”;  and the implementation of a new bell schedule with virtually no opportunity for educators and parents to weigh in.  What we can count on the Board to do, said Haver, is to “silence the very people who should be heard on these issues”  through its speaker suppression policies.

Goals and Guardrails

In a one hour and 45-minute session, the Board and Hite addressed Goals 1 and 2 Reading for grades K-3 and 4-8.  For those who wish to immerse themselves in the current educational  buzzwords and lingo, the District makes the video of the meeting available on the Board webpage.  Fix Lopez facilitated this data analysis session.   While Hite administration staff and Board members discussed how to have all students reading on grade level, noticeably absent from any part  of the discussion is what educators have to offer to achieve this goal.  The educators who receive directives from administration on how to march students to success with vague references to “stakeholder feedback” are not included in determining educational solutions. It is hard to imagine that the District’s top-down solutions and directives will ever result in the goals desired. 

The Hite administration is rolling out a new curriculum in September.  Teachers will attend professional development on the curriculum both before the school year begins and throughout the year.  Hite said that his goal is to provide a full hour of uninterrupted and protected planning time to educators. He didn’t specify whether this would be daily or weekly, but this would be contingent on agreement with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, so no details were available.  There was no explanation in the submitted materials, nor was any offered by Hite on what terms including “logic model”  and “Universal Screener” mean. Both were questioned by Fix Lopez.  Tonya Wolford ,Chief of Evaluation, Research, and Accountability, said that a logic model is a detailed map of strategies and will be available on the District website within a couple of months.  Universal screener refers to the Star test. Hite indicated that there would not be any other benchmark tests for reading other than the Star assessment.  

President Wilkerson asked Hite whether he had data on how many students returned in March for hybrid learning and how many remained fully remote.  Hite  said he did not have that data but that they were working on it. Both Wilkerson and Salley questioned how the administration was sure it was identifying the correct root cause of students not on track.  As Salley pointed out, you could have what seems to be a solution to an incorrectly identified question.   Hite and Wolford assured the Board members that their data indicated they were identifying the correct root causes.  

The meeting began at 4:00 p.m. and concluded at 6:50 p.m.  Wilkerson said that the August Board meeting may include some level of in-person attendance.  The Board will post additional information before the meeting.