Ears On The Board of Education: September 23, 2021
by Diane Payne
The Board’s deliberate and mean-spirited disrespect for the students, parents, educators, and community members was the lowlight of this meeting. Board President Wilkerson moved speakers way down the agenda, calling on them after a lengthy presentation. At this “hybrid meeting”, the Board allowed into the auditorium only those who signed up to speak in person. With about 80% of the room empty, at least 50 people could fit with more than adequate distancing. After all, the Board has no problem with filling classrooms with little ventilation to capacity or having students, in the words of Student Representative Rebecca Allen, “packed like sardines” in hallways. In fact, half of the Board members attended virtually, including Julia Danzy and Marie McColgan, who have supported all of the administration’s plans for full return to school buildings since last year, falsely claiming that most parents supported the administration’s plan. Once again, there was a persistent echo in the auditorium, making it difficult for attendees to hear. The camera was positioned so far back that those viewing at home could not see the faces of the Board members or tell who was speaking.
Despite the challenges, APPS members fight to be heard. The Board has used the pandemic to take cover from the public and to shut down discussion on crucial issues. APPS co-founder Lisa Haver (pictured above), who was barred from speaking in August, managed to gain entry by signing up to speak at the exact moment the online window opened. (Others found the window closed just hours after it opened.) During the meeting, Haver stood in the front of the auditorium wearing signs front and back reading “Stop Speaker Suppression”. The Board has not relented, despite community protest and a lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of APPS and UrbEd. In the opening weeks of school, parents have had to deal with buses not showing up, mountains of trash in schoolyards, several incidents of miscommunication including the day after a devastating storm, and unanswered Covid questions. But most of those who wanted to publicly bring these issues before the Board were prevented from doing so, as the BOE is still arbitrarily capping the number of speakers at thirty. After four hours of watching this Board, one can’t help but conclude that the Board has no intention of holding Hite, or anyone in his administration, accountable for the endless snafus. And it is only September.
All Schools, with Equitable Resources, Can Be Blue Ribbon Schools
All eight Board members, both student representatives, and Superintendent Hite were present. (No word on when Mayor Kenney will begin his secret process of filling the vacancy left by Angela McIver’s resignation). Board Members Cecilia Thompson, Julia Danzy, and Maria McColgan attended virtually. President Wilkerson addressed a number of topics: welcoming students and staff back to in-person learning; gun violence and the collective efforts needed to confront it; the bus driver shortage; the challenges of trash pick-up and the related driver shortages; the District’s layered protection efforts against COVID; an appreciation of staff’s efforts in schools’ reopening; the Board’s impending approval of their contract with the members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers; and the coveted National Blue Ribbon Award to Girard Academic Music Program (GAMP) and Penn Alexander.
The accolades for these two schools from Wilkerson and Hite represented the first of many times attendees must have wondered how much of what they say they actually believe. Everyone celebrates the achievements of these two schools, but we know that most schools do not have the resources that they do. Wilkerson’s pronouncement that “these schools show us what is possible” seems like magical thinking–unless she means it’s possible if every school were adopted by a large private institution with a massive endowment.
Although not on the agenda, Wilkerson asked Board member Mallory Fix Lopez to report on legislative updates. Fix Lopez called on members of the public to reach out to their elected officials and demand fair funding for our schools. She noted Governor Wolf’s efforts to reform the Charter School Law and said that the Board would be submitting written comments to the Governor before October 18th. Although the District is not a plaintiff in the suit, Fix Lopez announced that the court date for the Fair Funding Lawsuit has been pushed back to November 12th.
End Outsourcing, Strengthen District Workforce
Hite offered a number of proposals to fix the bus driver shortage. One would pay parents a flat-rate monthly payment option for driving their children to school. Or SEPTA could provide parents with a special Fare Card so they could accompany them on public transit. In addition, Hite noted that the District is offering to reimburse driver applicants for their CDL license and to pay signing bonuses. Action Item 28, added the day before the meeting, allots an additional $149, 858, 498 to contract for bus service.
Now would be a good time for the Board to remember: You reap what you sow. An integral part of the corporate reform agenda, as implemented by the SRC and now the Board, has been to replace in-house services via outsourcing. Rather than maintain its own bus system, the District has outsourced to a myriad of independent contractors. The District’s outsourcing has diminished the services in all facets of school operations, from bus drivers to teacher and principal certification programs. The District contracts with cheap and unaffiliated programs, e.g., Relay GSE (which former Board Member Chris McGinley referred to as “Relay Fake Graduate School”), run by business people with no background in education.
When the District opts for cheap and unaccredited independent contractors, and when the District relies on cheap labor for positions such as para-professionals and food servers, they get what they pay for. The District must build a workforce of well-paid, full-time professionals who bring experience and expertise.
Hite’s comments on Covid protection measures, some in response to the news about school nurses, provided little illumination.
Although he mentioned the District Covid dashboard, he failed to explain the many failings and questions. Why was it not posted until one week after school began? Why does it provide only “partial data”? Why has test-to-play for students participating in sports and music programs not begun yet? Have District administrators consulted with principals and teachers on the ground on how the dashboard is working? Student Rep Rebecca Allen, a woodwind instrument player, advised Board members that students are not being Covid tested as required by the District’s test-to-play mandate. Many of the questions and comments from the Student Board Members were more specific and challenging than those from the voting Board members.
Hite announced that due to parent reaction to calendar changes, the District was keeping in place the Professional Development days as voted on by the Board in March, 2021. Board questioning, however, revealed that his statement did not tell the whole truth of the matter. Fix Lopez, parent of a kindergarten student, pointed out to Hite that parents received the schedule now, well after the school year began of the six half days for teacher professional development. She noted that now parents have to scramble to accommodate these early dismissals. It is not quite accurate to say the calendar isn’t changing but Hite deflected by saying there was a generic insertion in the calendar that these dates would be listed later.
Egea-Hinton relayed the complaints she has received from parents regarding the inaccessibility of the transportation call center. Hite responded that he has added more people to the call center and that both his office and Chief Operating Officer Reggie McNeil’s office were taking calls regarding transportation problems. Board members accepted that explanation without comment. Has the addition of staff improved the center’s efficiency? Apparently none of the Board members called the center before the meeting to see for themselves.
President Wilkerson asked a question about Hite’s proposal to use Amazon as a support in this bus crisis. Hite admitted that Amazon, as an employer, could be in conflict with the District’s efforts to get drivers. He also pointed out that Amazon drivers do not need to have a CDL license as school bus drivers do. In any case, the District does not need to associate itself with a mega-employer who is constantly under fire for abusing employees, using questionable pay schedules and engaging in unfair labor practices.
Student Rep Allen reported first-hand about crowded lunch periods with little to no opportunity to social-distance and no dividers of any kind on tables. Hite said that he knew what school Ms. Allen attended and that he would look into it. Does the Board believe that this is only the case at this one school?
Empowerment Application Still Rife with Deficiencies
Acting Charter School Office Director Peng Chao reported on the CSO’s evaluation of the resubmitted application from Empowerment Charter. The Board denied Empowerment’s original application in March, citing an extensive list of deficiencies in academic, organization, and financial areas. Chao told the Board that most of those deficiencies remain in the revised application. The CSO evaluation again noted that the applicant lists the name of the school in all official documents as “Empowerment Charter”, not “Shirley Chisholm”.
Some of the significant issues by Empowerment: citing incorrect sections of the Charter School Law; proposing a school leader who lacks a principal certification (the applicant states that she is working on attaining the certification through the unaccredited Jounce Partners); evidence that each of the founding coalition’s related organizations would benefit financially if the proposed Charter School was approved; little evidence of community support for the school. An additional problem with approving any new citywide charter would be exacerbating the current school bus crisis and the additional environmental impact of having students being driven from all corners of the city. In her testimony, APPS member Ilene Poses said that charter investors should not be exploiting the legacy of Shirley Chisolm to sell their product.
Board Members Again Disrespect Parents and Community
Why does the Board issue an agenda that it has no intention of following? The agenda is an official document subject to the rules of the PA Sunshine Act. There was no agenda item for a Legislative Update but one was given anyway. “Committee Reports” was listed even though the only one left is the Policy Committee–which gave no report. The Charter School Presentation and Goals and Guardrails were listed after all speakers. That didn’t stop Wilkerson from having both presentations before the speakers. None of the Board members questioned the agenda changes, indicating that they knew ahead of time that speakers would be pre-empted for a significant amount of time. When Haver stood and objected, Wilkerson told her that the G and G would only take about fifteen minutes. The fact that it actually took an hour and a half means that Wilkerson knew she was not being honest. When Haver told the Board after her testimony that they owed the public an apology for making them wait to hear the public speakers, Wilkerson stated that the Board president has the power to make changes in the agenda. Haver responded that she also has the power and the responsibility to announce those changes in advance. Maybe President Wilkerson can rearrange the schedule at her whim, but the disrespect for the community seems to be of no concern to any member of the Board. The Board enforces its speaker suppression policy, but that is of no concern to City Council.
As Ilene Poses told the Board, after almost half of the registered speakers did not show, parents have to help children with homework, feed them, and put them to bed. Are they supposed to guess how the agenda will be rearranged and wait another hour and a half to be called? Are the needs of parents, staff, and community members of no concern to Wilkerson or anyone on the Board?
Data Analysis While Rome Burns
Hite called on the Chiefs of the various departments, and many of the Chiefs called on their underlings, to support his presentation on Implementation Planning. Like the usual Goals and Guardrails, there was little of value to the public in the bloated presentation. Some Board members asked relevant questions; others used the opportunity to lob more softballs at Hite and to thank him and his team. Meanwhile, social media was blowing up with the discovery of the latest debacle: the news that the District failed to deliver meals to Mitchell Elementary, forcing the Principal and teachers to scramble to make sure students did not go hungry.
In her testimony, parent advocate Stephanie King said it best: “All the pretty presentations in the world can’t improve the curriculum if parents and teachers are holding their schools together with string and tape.”
(The Board meeting with this presentation can be viewed on the Board website by going to “Watch Previous Board Meetings”)
Board Doubles Down on Speaker Suppression
The Board claims that the online window to sign up to speak closes 24 hours before the meeting, but in reality it is open for just a few hours. People who tried to sign up at 7 PM Monday found themselves blocked. When thirty people sign up in just a few hours, it is a clear indication that many more were blocked. Also, in the spirit of governing by whim, the Board no longer includes directions or an email address for submitting written testimony on the page. Some people did submit by sending it via a letter to the Board. In any case, written testimony is not a substitute for speaking in person. Public speakers bring issues to a public forum about public schools for the public to hear and to act on. Public meetings are opportunities to organize parents, students, and community members as members of the school community. People are not just speaking to the Board–they are speaking to fellow defenders of public education. They are speaking so that the media can see which issues are most pressing to the people. Every month, an unknown number of speakers are denied their First Amendment right to petition their government. After Wilkerson’s manipulation of agenda items, only 16 of the 30 registered speakers were there when finally called.
Four APPS members spoke in person and two APPS members submitted written comments. Visit the APPS website for the full text of these remarks.
APPS members Lisa Haver, Ilene Poses, Lynda Rubin, and Diane Payne, in addition to addressing other matters, all urged the Board to vote No on the resubmitted Empowerment Charter application. Coleman Poses asked again about the Board’s unfulfilled promises to formally include a voter-registration drive in high school’s curriculum. Haver challenged the Board’s speaker suppression, as did Payne in written testimony. The Board also read Payne’s formal objection to the Board’s voting on Action Item 26 without full text, amounting to a vote taken in secret and a violation of the PA Sunshine Act. Speaker #30 Lizzie Rothwell, a parent of two young children, stayed to the bitter end. Rothwell displayed several charts with data on carbon dioxide levels in two classrooms measured over several days, with hand-held instruments, by her elementary school children. When asked at what school these levels were measured, Rothwell told them that was irrelevant, as the data reflected levels in classrooms across the District.
Board Again Rejects Empowerment Charter Application
Items 1, 9, 22: All “withdrawn by staff” prior to meeting.
Items 7,8,10: Passed 8-0.
Item 24: Passed 8-0.
Item 26: Rejection of Empowerment Charter passed 8-0.
Item 16, contract with Dr. Klock Talk, LLC: BM Lisa Salley made a motion to amend the Item to read “contract up to two years” rather than “for two years.” That motion failed 5-3, with only Salley, Fix Lopez and Thompson in support.
The original Item passed 7-1, with Salley dissenting.
Item 17: Passed 8-0.
Item 19: Passed 8-0.
Item 20: Passed 8-0.
Item 25: Passed 8-0.
Items 2 through 6, 11 through 15, 18, 21 through 23, 27 through 28: Passed 8-0.