Ears on the Board of Education: February 24, 2022
by Diane Payne
APPS members and others, both in person and via written testimony, objected to the Board’s plan to hold small in-person meetings for a select few to meet the next superintendent finalists. Before the public speakers had finished, Vice President Leticia Egea-Hinton, who is spearheading the search process, stated on the record that those raising objections were wrong. Her rationale was that this meeting would be live streamed and they were holding a hybrid town hall open to the public. APPS members in the auditorium spoke up to say that holding one public meeting doesn’t erase the fact that the meeting in question was only open to a certain number of people, chosen in a private process, and that the qualifications for admission ruled out any community member. Egea-Hinton’s defensive response was not an honest effort to try to understand the objections, just to rationalize the Board’s actions. None of the other Board members objected to holding a select meeting to meet the candidates.
The Philadelphia community is shut out on almost every front. We are the only District in the Commonwealth that doesn’t have an elected school board. One person–the current mayor–selects Board members in a secret process not open to the public. The Board shuts down its committees and imposes speaker suppression. If the Board is going to claim that the superintendent search process includes public participation, that must be more than window-dressing. APPS calls on the Board to make both town halls open to the public. Do not bar anyone from attending. Take steps to insure cross representation of stakeholders and let the public have both in-person and hybrid options for attending both open townhalls.
All Board Members Must Attend Meetings in Person
President Joyce Wilkerson, Vice-President Egea-Hinton, and Board members Mallory Fix Lopez and Reginald Streater attended the entire meeting in person, as did both student representatives and Dr. Hite. Maria McColgan was absent. Board members Cecelia Thompson and Julia Danzy attended remotely, with Thompson again disappearing for long periods. Board Member Lisa Salley attended remotely for the first half and in person for the second. After Salley disappeared from the screen for an extended period of time, APPS member Lisa Haver stood up and asked whether Board Member Salley was still present. Wilkerson called Salley, who was then heard but not seen, just before she entered the auditorium.
APPS has publicly questioned why some Board members continue to attend Action Meetings remotely when all District staff and students are required to report in person. The Board has responded to none of our emails on the subject. We have also objected to Board members’ screens going dark with no explanation and no indication of whether they are still present, not even a box with their name on it. The public has a right to know which of these government officials is present. Legally, Board members who are absent for a significant amount of time can not vote on official items. Salley, for instance, was not seen during most of the public speaking. Was she hearing the concerns of those students, parents, educators, and community members? Thompson was visible until midway through the Goals and Guardrails, at which point she disappeared from view. When the voting on Action Items began, and Thompson’s name was called to vote, there was no response. She missed the first three votes on Action Items 1-4, 15, and 23. When Thompson reappeared and joined in the voting, no explanation was provided by her or the Board president. APPS will continue to call for full and consistent Board presence. When the Board holds its next meeting on March 3, all Board members should be present in the auditorium.
Board Excludes Community Members from Superintendent Forum
Board President Wilkerson opened with acknowledgement of Black History month, congratulations to District staff receiving awards: Paul Robeson Principal Gordon, receiving both national and state recognition; Jenna Monley from the FACE office receiving a leadership award; and Math Curriculum Specialist Jessica Tilli receiving the National Science Foundation Award
Vice President Egea-Hinton gave an update on the Superintendent Search, announcing two town halls in March, but with no dates for either. One will be open to the public, who can attend either in person or remotely. Egea-Hinton mentioned no specifics about whether people will have to register, and none are given on the District website except an allusion to Covid protocols. The second is a closed session and is not open to all members of the public; it will be limited to a small group selected by the Board. The Board will select thirty-two people who send in applications; they must be currently employed by the Board, a student, or a current District parent. That excludes any member of the community fighting to defend public education. If the President of the PFT applied, according to the Board’s rules, he would be denied admittance, as would the head of the Philadelphia Education Fund, the head of the Urban League, the head of POWER, and most of the Board’s own superintendent selection committee. Several APPS members, including Diane Payne, testified to the undemocratic nature of this meeting. Payne told the Board: “Everything about this process is hidden from public view. Who decided on 32? What will the format be and how is it being decided? Will questions be limited? The guidelines for these sessions shut out large swaths of people who care and are engaged, not to mention that 32 is a minuscule representation.” Payne called on the Board to open this up to a larger representation of district stakeholders. In addition, the proposed format of the select committee meeting would have the teachers, principals, parents and students segregated in separate rooms, with nominees traveling among them. Why does the Board think that educators don’t want to hear from students? Don’t students want those in charge to hear them? Or that principals don’t want to know what parents have to say–and vice-versa? The Board should admit all members of the public who care about and advocate for public schools. There are many parents who continue to support their children’s schools even after they graduate, many as volunteers and fundraisers. Many retired educators do the same. Why does the Board want to exclude them?
Surely the in-person meetings can be structured to include more than thirty in a session without overwhelming the finalists. After all, they are agreeing to oversee a district of close to 200,000 students in over 200 schools.The auditorium in 440 holds 240 people. With distancing, at least 100 people could be seated, with 50-100 in the atrium. Anyone who wanted to attend could register in person, with the Board ensuring that a representative sample of parents, educators, students and community members was admitted. Lisa Haver pointed out in her testimony that ten years ago, she was one of many who came to hear and see Dr. Hite when he was a finalist for the position. All members of the public were invited, and those who wished to ask a question got in line. Is this progress, she asked, for the Board to hold a private meeting with selected guests? Haver pointed out that this is an extension of the Board’s speaker suppression policies. The Board obviously does not want to hear from the dedicated community activists who fight year after year to defend public education. Why not listen rather than get defensive? Why not hear the ideas from the public on this? Is it really public engagement when the public doesn’t get to weigh in on any part of the process?
Board Members Streater and Fix Lopez gave updates on the Fair Funding Lawsuit in Harrisburg, urged the public to advocate for fair funding in the upcoming Wolf budget, and recommended supporting upcoming Harrisburg legislation that benefits public education. Unfortunately, a visit to the Board website does not contain the specific information Streater and Fix Lopez shared. At one point, you could access the Board’s recommendations around Harrisburg advocacy on their website but there is nothing available at this time. (At timestamp 10 minutes on the video of this meeting, you can access the legislation details.)
Bord Mmember Cecelia Thompson reported on the Parent and Community Advisory Council. The importance of this Council has been so diminished that it is difficult to discern its mission or impact. Before COVID, a member of the committee would come up to present findings from outreach in their geographical section of the city. (In what some saw as disrespectful, the Council member’s name or neighborhood was never included on the Board’s agenda.) There was never any response from the Board about any of Council’s recommendations. The best one could say is that it gave some sense of community outreach. Now, Council members are no longer seen or heard publicly; their report is given second-hand, and there is no indication it includes community outreach. Thompson stated that Council members raised concerns about the special admit process, creating more middle schools and more. (The complete report is at timestamp 18 minutes.)
Student Rep Rebecca Allen’s report centered on support for the Voter Registration resolution in Action Item 25.
District Must Find Solutions to Staff Resignations
Dr. Hite’s brief report did little to address the ongoing concerns of students, parents and educators, in particular those around the ongoing Covid crisis. He announced a public town hall to discuss the 2022-23 school calendar (a link can be found on the District website). Hopefully this will be a positive step. Hite said that his administration is reviewing and analyzing the data from the school selection process and will provide an update as well as schedule a townhall to get feedback on how to improve it. Several parents have objected to the lack of outreach to parents, the rushed implementation, and the effect that it has had on students.
Chief Talent Officer Larisa Shambaugh presented (remotely) on current staffing; some Board members, notably Salley, have been asking for this since last Fall. Shambaugh compared the District’s staffing to national trends. There are competing forces at play across the nation and across job spectrums, with both all-time highs in hiring and all-time highs of resignations. Kristin Graham’s Inquirer report on the meeting noted: “Between Dec. 1 and Feb. 15, 169 Philadelphia School District teachers quit, a 200% increase over the 57 resignations during the same time frame in the 2020-21 school year…[C]urrent district educator Kristen Lubbert pointed out in her testimony to the Board, ‘Teachers leave because of bad administration, crazy stupid paperwork requirements, and toxic working conditions.’”
The Hite administration could do much to increase teacher retention, beginning with being responsive to the professional educators in their classrooms. But subsequent Goals and Guardrails data analysis, sadly, showed that this is not likely to happen anytime soon. (Testimonies of defenders of public education are posted on the APPS website at https://appsphilly.net/ )
Shambaugh said that staffing needs are not standard across the District but fluctuate based on many factors, including historically hard to fill speciality areas. She noted the District is working in partnership with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and that strategies include more marketing, bonuses for hard to fill areas, and higher starting salaries. (View this full report at the 34-minute timestamp.)
Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson gave his preview (remotely) of the upcoming fiscal year 2022-23 budget (at time-stamp 56 minutes). Some highlights include: budgeting for increasing counselors in schools from a ratio of 1 per 800 students to 1 per 650; increasing secretaries in schools by changing the ratio from 1 per 1,150 students to 1 per 850 students; paying for PBIS incentives (Positive Behavior and Intervention Supports); and paying for all graduating students’ caps and gowns. Monson stated that the budgets for individual schools will be increased because of these changes. Monson also noted the District will be using American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to increase ELL (English Language Learners) teachers and Bilingual Counseling Assistants (BCA). Monson then reported that the “downward leveling” will return to all but seventeen District schools, however with an “eye to equity”. Parents and educators for years have protested this leveling, in which teachers are removed from classrooms and schools weeks after the school year has begun. Bringing back this harmful practice ignores the parents and educators advocating for the stability of students and schools.
Speakers Advocate for Student Voter Registration
Of the twenty-four public speakers, nineteen showed up when called to testify. Many of the students, elected officials, and general speakers spoke in support of the Student Voter Registration in Action Item 25. Why did it take over three years to convince the Board that our students should be encouraged to vote? (That doesn’t include the years advocating at the SRC.) The resolution passed, but the Board must make sure that the administration is implementing its mandates. Congratulations to students, teachers and community members who fought for years, never giving up, to make sure our students can participate in our democracy. Three APPS members testified, one sent in written testimony. See their testimony and the testimony of other defenders of public education on the APPS website.
Data-Driven Goals and Guardrails Brings More Testing
The Board spent almost two hours on the data analysis known as Goals and Guardrails, this time on Reading Goal #1. Hardy viewers can watch (at time-stamp 3:12) the tedious session with its laborious graphs, charts, lingo, and verbiage. The District is not on target to reach this goal–to have the 35.7% of students proficient in 2019 move to 65% in 2026. Never mentioned in all the talk on professional development, assessments, MTSS (Multi-Tiered Systems of Support), strategies, goals, and frameworks, was how to best teach students to read. As Kristin Luebbert pointed out, when teachers have to spend time jumping through administrative hoops they have less time to teach their students to read. Another disturbing G & G revelation is that the District now administers the STAR test to all students in grades K through 12. Our early learners must now take a computer-generated test. Not one Board expressed objection or even apprehension that young children are subjected to this. Have any members of the Board actually tried to determine from District teachers the worth of the STAR assessment? The District’s presentation indicated 4 hours of staff time is devoted to STAR, would people in the classroom concur? If only the District would start talking to teachers, the professionals in the classroom.
Board Passes Student Voting Resolution
All Items on the agenda passed. The Board approved $108, 826, 551 in new spending.
Action Item I: Passed, 6 Yes, 1 Abstain (Egea-Hinton),1 no-show (Thompson)
Action Items 2 – 4: Passed, 6 Yes, I no-show (Thompson)
Action Item 15, Contract Award with Weatherproofing Technologies, Inc for HVAC Replacement, Roofing, and Masonry Project at Austin Meehan Middle School ($12,948,988): Passed 6 Yes; 1 no-show (Thompson)
Fix Lopez requested information on this Item because Board members and the public had been told that Austin Meehan was to be demolished. Hite replied that some students are still in the building (Mayfair kindergarten students) and that there is still overcrowding in Northeast schools. He said that because of ongoing building projects a local “swing space” was needed. Thus Meehan will remain open for another decade. Hite assured Board members they had neighborhood outreach and the community was in agreement.
Action Item 23, AMY Northwest Middle School Schoolyard Improvement Project, Lowell Elementary School Schoolyard Improvement Project, and Add B. Anderson
Elementary School Schoolyard Improvement Project, limited Joinders to
Subgrant Agreement: Passed 6 Yes, 1 no-show (Thompson).
Board members raised questions about playground equity, alluding to the defeat of the Sayre pool funding Item last month. Thompson was the only Yes vote on that Item. In January, despite pleas from community members and testimony from City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, the Board voted not to pay for repairs at the Sayre pool. Hite told the Board that the playground projects on this Action Item were already underway and this resolution was just a land transfer that must happen with each playground project as part of the completion. No money was involved in this resolution. President Wilkerson stated that at the April meeting the Board would be discussing how grant money is allocated in order to ensure an equitable process.
Action Item 25, Student Voter Education and Registration Resolution: Passed 7-0 (Thompson returned).
Action Item 5-14, 16-22, 24, 26-29: All passed unanimously.
President Wilkerson announced that the Board will hold a special action meeting next Thursday March 3 at 4 PM for the purpose of voting on three new charter applications. (See APPS reports that show the deficiencies of the applications)
The regular action meeting will be held March 24 at 4 pm. The auditorium will be open to all, not just those registered to speak.
Meeting adjourned at 9:20 PM, over five hours after convening.