Board Fails to Respond to Crises

Ears on the Board of Education: October 28, 2021

by Diane Payne

Three days before a possible SEPTA strike, Superintendent Hite announced that schools would be open as they have been this year — that is, there would be no alternative virtual instruction. Hite presented no plan to help parents get students to school. Fortunately, SEPTA operators have tentatively agreed to a new contract, and a strike has been averted. Was Hite’s non-plan designed to put more pressure on SEPTA or its unions to settle? Fortunately, we don’t have to find out — this time. But the Board and  Hite must develop a plan for alternative education in the case of transportation strikes, natural disasters, weather emergencies, and of course, a spike in COVID cases. 

President Joyce Wilkerson, Vice-president Leticia Egea-Hinton, Board Members Mallory Fix Lopez and Lisa Salley attended in person.  Attending virtually were Julia Danzy, Reginald Streater, Cecelia Thompson and Maria McColgan — who, despite being an outspoken advocate since last year for a return to in-person learning for students and staff, has yet to attend a hybrid Board meeting in person.   (Mayor Kenney has not begun the process of filling the seat left vacant when Angela McIver resigned in July.) 

Egea-Hinton reported on the current superintendent search by noting that the Board has engaged in a total of 34 listening sessions attended with over 1,000 people and has had over 1,000 surveys returned.  Egea-Hinton repeated her assertion, made in some listening sessions, that this is not a search for a Board Superintendent but a “Philadelphia Superintendent”. 

Many areas of public concern were not addressed in Egea-Hinton’s summary.  How, and by whom, will the 11-member Advisory Committee be chosen?  How will the breadth of listening session comments be made available for public review?  How will the public see those recurrent major points in the superintendent search criteria?  How will the public be engaged in the months between the listening sessions and the final selection?  What is the role of the consulting firms already hired by the Board? 

Egea-Hinton noted that Action Item 22 proposed a $190,000 contract with Isaacson and Miller to conduct its own superintendent search. She listed Philadelphia entities that have used this firm in the past.  She noted that of the six firms considered, this firm scored the highest (presumably on their metrics for choosing a firm).  (Action Meetings can be viewed  here in entirety on the District webpage.  All agendas and PowerPoints can be accessed on the Meeting Materials page.)

Board Accepts Administration’s Non-Response to Crises 

Dr. Hite opened his remarks by acknowledging and celebrating the LGBTQIA+ community and reaffirming the District’s commitment to supporting students in this community as well as adhering to the protections in Policy 252.   Hite then briefly summarized the COVID safety protocols noting the number of staff vaccinated and the status of weekly COVID testing.

Hite announced the administration’s plan in the case of a SEPTA strike. Danzy asked if Hite had a “Plan B” in place. Hite replied that the District would be monitoring daily and would adjust as necessary.  No other Board member questioned the wisdom of demanding all students and staff report to school as normal in the event of a strike, placing the burden on parents to figure out how to get their children to school every day. Fix Lopez, herself a District parent,  asked if other City agencies could be partners in helping to mitigate the burden on families and staff. Hite noted that he had asked Philadelphia Parking Authority (PPA) to work with schools to temporarily ease parking restrictions. PPA turned him down — the same patronage-laden, highly compensated, and opaque PPA who year after year fails to deliver on its financial obligation to the city’s schools.  Hite only disclosed this denied PPA request under questioning.  It is not clear why this wouldn’t be important information included in the body of Hite’s presentation.    

Fix Lopez and Thompson asked about recent changes in the special-admit application process.  Hite told them that the website will be fully updated by Monday November 1, with an accommodation piece for English Language Learners  and Special Education students. A  second live venue for families to ask questions about the special-admit process will be held on November 4. 

Board members questioned Hite about vaccination readiness with the anticipated approval of vaccines for children ages 5 to 11.  Hite said the District has distributed surveys to families that include a permission slip for in-school vaccinations. The District is working with partners including CHOP and the Black Doctors Consortium to provide vaccination clinics.  

Salley asked for updates on COVID-related matters, in particular staffing shortages and COVID updates.   Neither Salley or any other Board Member challenged Hite’s response that he would  provide presentations on both topics at next month’s action meeting.  Hite’s response to the question of what the administration does when no nurse is at a school was that the District employs  “health-related individuals”. Board members seemed satisfied with that answer as none asked for an explanation of who the health-related individuals were or how they were deployed.

Hite’s presentation made no mention of the escalating gun violence crisis. In response to a question from Streater on this, Hite responded that the Philadelphia Police Department has allocated additional officers to twenty-five “hot spots” near schools. He informed the Board that the administration was initiating a new program, modeled on one used in Chicago, to recruit and compensate trusted community members to be the “eyes and ears” in some of the identified hot spots. 

Egea-Hinton noted that several members of the Sheridan Elementary School community would be testifying on the need for a new schoolyard.  Sheridan is located in the heart of Kensington and has had to deal with nearby drug trafficking and violence.  Egea-Hinton said she visited the school and was impressed by the dedication and work at Sheridan under difficult conditions.  Hite responded that the district had to undertake a review of what level of construction is needed before they can respond to Sheridan’s request.  He said if they determine something is a “hazard” that can be repaired quickly to mitigate the hazard.  One of the staff speakers from the school testified that the Sheridan community has been requesting help with this for a decade. Many described the dangerous conditions that should have been repaired years ago. Are the Sheridan children really going to have to wait for another “review”? 

Board Continues Speaker Suppression Policies

Several student speakers addressed their ongoing push for a standard, system-wide voter registration curriculum for high school seniors. For more than two years, students, staff, and community advocates have been pushing for the district to implement this. It seems an easy ask, with obvious benefits. Although Hite has expressed support, the Board has failed to pass an official policy to move it forward. For some reason, McColgan asked Hite what work had been done on this. But what could Hite do until the Board enacts it as an official policy? Fix Lopez then stated that this would be “discussed” (again) at the next Policy Committee Meeting. But the official agenda for the next Policy Committee meeting, scheduled for Thursday, November 4, does not include any deliberation on this issue. Does the Board plan to add an official policy on student voting registration to the November 4 agenda–or just “discuss” it? That would mean that students would have to wait until at least February 2022 (as this Committee meets only four times a year) for official consideration, and months after that for final passage.

The Board continues its speaker suppression policies.  In January, the Board, without notice or deliberation or public vote, reduced speaker time from three minutes to two and capped the number of adult speakers to thirty — no matter how many people wished to speak or how many official items were on the agenda. Every American has a constitutional right to petition their government — apparently except the Americans in Philadelphia who wish to address the governing body of their public school district. This month only twenty people signed up to speak; two of them did not show.  The Board insulates itself from the possible discomfort of hearing from large numbers of community members when circumstances demand a strong and unified voice. The public can have little faith in the Board’s claim of community engagement in the superintendent search when the Board continues to silence them. 

Speakers addressed many issues: Sheridan’s need for a safe play space; building conditions at Paul Robeson High School; the need to bring back school libraries; flaws in the superintendent listening sessions; a clear accounting of the large sums of money the administration spends, in particular the $4 million amount for capital improvements lacking sufficient details;  the need for leadership to confront the horror of gun violence; the crisis of staffing within every sector of schools; the ongoing lack of specificity on change orders Action Item 12; and the influence of foundations and private boards directing what is funded in district schools then leveraging those donations into contracts. School Nurse Eileen Duffey sounded the alarm about the increasing resignations of school nurses, telling the Board about “the impossibility of simultaneously executing our responsibility to keep students safe…while managing pandemic safety in our schools…” in addition to coordinating with the City Health Department’s epidemiological data collection. The Board failed to appreciate the urgency of Duffey’s report, and again accepted Hite’s assertion that the administration had the situation under control. 

Parent advocate Laurie Mazer called out the district’s promise to have the DoneSafe website available for the public to have updated information on the status of schools’ environmental conditions.  When a Board member questioned Hite about it after Mazer’s remarks, Hite falsely claimed that DoneSafe was up and running. Had any Board member pressed him on that, or had not cut Mazer off,  they could have heard that it is still not available to the public. As reported by WHYY,  “District officials plan to use a platform called DoneSafe to house all school building inspections — starting with the mandated three-year asbestos inspections which are ongoing — and make that information easily accessible to the public. The district has not specified what information will be available or when the platform will be online.”   Hite responded inaccurately to Board follow-up questions about Mazer’s request that information — on both the $325M Federal allocation and the $2B expenditure in the Chief Financial Officer’s 5-year lump sum statement — clearly explain how this money will be spent.  Hite led the Board to believe this information could be found in each school’s budget page.  The information Mazer was questioning is not found in school budgets and there is no line item for facilities in the District’s 5-year plan breaking down how this money will be used.  The Board moved on, satisfied with Hite’s response.

(Public testimony from APPS members Lisa Haver, Diane Payne, Barbara Dowdall, and Deborah Grill, along with other defenders of public education, can be found on the APPS website.)

Data Analysis and Salesmanship Replace Accountability 

The Board unveiled its Goals and Guardrails in January as a way to hold Dr. Hite accountable. That promise, never actually carried out, has been increasingly marginalized as the 2-hour data analysis session has become a platform for Hite to sell the administration’s latest reforms.  

The data presented for this meeting was on Goal 4 and Goal 5.  Goal 4: the percentage of students proficient on all three state high school assessments (Algebra, Literature, and Biology) by the end of their 11th grade year will grow from 26.1% in August 2019 to 52.0% by August 2026.  Goal 5: the percentage of Career and Technical Education (CTE) students who pass an industry standards-based competency assessment by the end of their 12th grade year would grow from 54.5% in August 2019 to 80.0% in August 2026.  The bottom line for these two goals is a percentage of improvement.  Where do these percentages come from and how are the projections calculated?  Neither Goal 4 nor 5 reached their stated percentage, with District administrators listing factors such as “needing more students to take the STAR test” and “COVID impacts” as reasons why.  Isn’t it common sense that kids are going to be affected by fallout from COVID?  Is the reliance on these percentages in the best interest of students’ overall health, education, and well-being?  Or is this only more evidence that the Board is still full steam ahead with the corporate influence of flawed standardized tests and scripted staff expectations to guide and direct a child’s education? 

Data can be used to guide improvement, but data can also be used to obfuscate.  It is difficult — after enduring the hours of PowerPoints, graphs, charts, and the parade of district administrators taking their turns at the mic — not to wonder where are the real kids and real teachers behind all of  this pomp.  This month, a new wrinkle was added to these presentations: a panel that included the Learning Network 4 administrator, Learning Network 1 Professional Learning Specialist, the principal and a teacher from Mastbaum High School, and the School Based Teacher Leader from Northeast High School, all promoting Common Planning Time (CPT), an administrative strategy for improvement.  More indication of the lack of teacher autonomy in any of this process was the lengthy justification for Common Planning Time (CPT).  At first glance, those not on the front lines may ask what could possibly be problematic about CPT.   But when the administration goes to so much time and trouble to justify,  you do begin to wonder why. Turns out that schools already had a common planning time called  “grade group meeting”.  These meetings were directed by what the teachers and staff felt was needed for each grade and for the school as a whole.  With the administration’s rebranding  comes a more rigid agenda that tolerates little deviation and brings the fear of being reprimanded for failure to comply.  The Board often wonders aloud what the district can do to retain and keep teachers. Respecting their expertise and experience would be a good start.  Instead of unquestioning reliance on slick administrative presentations and PowerPoints, Board members should go into schools and speak candidly with students and staff.  How much value do they place on STAR?  How much harm do they see in STAR?  What do they say their students need?  What is their take on CPT?

Unanimous Approval for Administrative Agenda

Item 7:  Withdrawn prior to the meeting. 

Items 5, 6, and 8: Passed unanimously.  Action Item 8 approved this month’s staff resignations and retirements.  On the official agenda, the Action Item states, “Names to be provided for public view immediately prior to the Board of Education Action Meeting on October 28, 2021.”  However, no list was available for the online agenda nor was it available the following day.  The few in-person attendees did in fact receive hard copies of the 6-page list. None of the Board members expressed urgency about the number of professionals fleeing the district, including several nurses. 

Item 20:  Passed unanimously.

Items 1-4, 9-19, 21,22: Passed unanimously.   Danzy questioned Facilities Chief Reggie McNeil about Item 12’s change orders, an issue that APPS member Diane Payne has testified about every month for over a year.  McNeil told the Board that the District’s change order spending is well below the national average.  The problem is that the Board allows the administration to give an incomplete overview of each month’s change order.  This generic approach lacks any built-in protection against red flags such as those that occurred with the Mother of All Change Orders–the construction debacle at Ben Franklin High School.   

Thompson questioned Action Item 4 regarding the inclusion of special ed students in after-school programs.  She pointed out that those students are excluded because of the inability of support personnel to be part of the process.  Hite assured Thompson that special ed was built into the language of the after-school activities. The Board should follow up to make sure that these students are no longer excluded. This meeting was convened at 4:00 PM and adjourned at 9:29 PM.