Board Must Act to Alleviate District Racism

Ears on the Board of Education: May 27, 2021

by Diane Payne

Just two days before this meeting, two more District students were felled by gunfire.  Several others had been killed in recent months. Yet the only acknowledgement made by President Joyce Wilkerson was one part of this sentence:  “Before we begin today, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge the passing of two of our students yesterday due to gun violence and while we acknowledge this tragic event, I don’t want to lose sight though that we have things to celebrate within the district as well.”  She then went right into  graduating seniors’  accomplishments. Wilkerson failed to honor the slain students by name, and she failed to note that one of the slain students himself was a graduating senior. These students did not “pass”. They were murdered.  Why did Wilkerson spend so little time honoring these fallen students? Neither she nor Dr. Hite addressed the trauma of the surviving classmates, teachers, and families or what, if anything, the District is doing to help them. The rest of the Board remained silent. Board Action Meetings should open with a reading of the names of students we have lost and a moment of silence to remember them.  Say their names now: Nasir Marks.  Kanye Pittman.  Please give them a moment of your silent reflection.

Board Members Should Be Visible to the Public

Eight of the nine Board Members attended; Maria McColgan was absent.  Student representatives attended. Board Member Cecilia Thompson was present but was not visible, nor did she have a named space on the screen.  When called, Thompson responded but remained off-camera for the entire meeting, with no explanation from her or President Wilkerson.  Anyone who tuned in after the roll call would have assumed Thompson was absent.  After her brief remarks about the fallen students,  Wilkerson offered a few highlights of seniors’ accomplishments, and a general congratulations to Lindback award winning teachers and the newly minted National Board Certified Teachers (NBCT). Although you could locate on the District website the names of all teachers who received the NBCT designation, the Board’s page for Lindback winners contained an error.  The page displayed a tab for principal winners and another tab for teacher winners.  However, both tabs directed the reader to the winners of the principal awards.  APPS has repeatedly addressed the difficulty in navigating the District website, the missing information, and the errors.  This is one more example.

The Student Rep report was delivered by Keylisha Diaz.  The Student Reps continue to focus on the mental health needs of students as they wrap up their year serving as Board Representatives. President Wilkerson congratulated Keylisha for receiving another promotion in the Army JROTC. 

Student Needs Should Determine Schedules

Hite informed the public of the inperson plans for graduations with no mention of the recent death of the two Philadelphia High School students, one of whom was a graduating senior.  Again, the failure of all levels of District leadership to give recognition, support, and empathy for students slain by violence and the needs of the students, staff, and families in the wake of these tragedies is disturbing.

Hite offered praise for School Safety Chief Kevin Bethel and his staff, noting that the Philadelphia School Diversion program has led to a reduction in incarceration and that the Leadership Encouraging Achievement & Development (LEAD) program is mentoring Black boys.  The District website says that LEADS “empower Black boys to both believe in themselves and maximize their full potential”.  Again the District website proved difficult and confusing to navigate–why is the LEADS information not under the School Safety Office tab?  You have to use the search bar to access information on LEADS. 

Hite then admitted that he gave incorrect information on the Lea School questions about ventilation at the May 20 public hearing. He stated that samples from Lea’s ventilation were actually not tested because there was no evidence of asbestos.  He said that in the future, when technical answers are required, it may take more time to answer to ensure accurate and up-to-date information is provided.  Hite said again that the company Dunsafe is putting all AHERA (relating to asbestos inspections) information together and will provide profiles when the uploading is complete in August.

Fix Lopez asked Hite to address the recent and unexpected news about possible changes in schools’ start times, which Hite failed to raise in his remarks.  The news on the new bell schedules broke Monday–the day before the contractual date for Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ (PFT) building reps to sign off on start and end times.  Teachers were not directly notified. In answer to reporters’ questions Wednesday, Hite acknowledged that the District was looking at changes in bell schedules but said no final decisions had been made. He didn’t say whether that decision would be made by him or by individual principals. 

When the expected uproar ensued from blindsided staff and parents, Hite quickly backtracked and said this was to begin a “discussion” on the problems caused by bus driver shortages and how to address this in the District.  Hite did not specify how parents’ needs and preferences will be solicited.  

The District has had a problem with bus companies for years, but Hite dropped the bombshell so that teachers and their union had only hours to react and make their counterpropsals. This transportation problem should have generated a larger discussion years ago because of the growing number of students we have criss-crossing the city. The District’s disinvestment in neighborhood schools by funding more special-admit schools and charter schools comes with a price tag, not just a financial one.  As our nation and world moves into ever greater climate challenges, we need to look at the ramifications of driving our students from one part of the city to the other.  The Board must initiate that change in policy, as the Hite administration has ignored it for nine years.   The Board spent almost two hours on its Goals and Guardrails data analysis. More time must be spent on crucial issues that will affect the quality of life of our students. 

Fix Lopez also asked about School Safety Officers carrying handcuffs and questioned the policy around handcuff usage.  Hite did not have an answer and said he would get back to her.  Knowing how handcuffs are used in your District seems like something a superintendent should not have to look up.

Financial Security, But Not for Long

Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson gave a brief presentation on updates to the operating budget.  Thanks to expected revenues from both the Real Estate Tax and the Use And Occupancy Tax,  there is an additional $203.6 million to be spent over the next five years. This pushes the specter of the next doomsday budget, and a negative fund balance,  to SY 2026. 

All meeting materials can be viewed on the District webpage.  

Fix Lopez pointed out that the projected budget figures contain no new money for any possible salary increases reached in upcoming contract negotiations. Monson confirmed Fix Lopez’s observation but offered no explanation.

Charter Schools Office Recommends Renewal for Substandard Charters

Charter Schools Chief Christina Grant narrated a three-part presentation: recommendations for 2021 charter renewals; the CSO evaluation on the resubmitted Pride Academy Charter application; and the Charter approval and amendment request from KIPP for change in location and name. (This presentation was not available on the District website until the day of the meeting.)

Pride Academy was one of five applicants denied by vote of the Board in March for a number of reasons, mostly for the overall lack of quality in the application itself, making it unlikely that the charter would offer a quality education to Philadelphia’s children. (See APPS reports on this school.)

Grant reported that the revised Pride application differed little from the original submitted last year. It still lacks specifics to support its stated mission of a Project Based Learning (PBL) curriculum, and is still heavy on jargon and light on substance. Pride still failed to demonstrate adequate community involvement. The CSO’s conclusion:  “The Revised Application does not present sufficient evidence of the Founding Coalition’s capacity to open a new charter school in Fall 2021.” 

The Board again voted unanimously to deny this application.  (Grant announced that the resubmitted Collegiate Charter application would be reviewed and voted on by the Board at the June Action Meeting.) 

Grant gave a presentation on a revised charter application for an entity that she referred to as both “KIPP Parkside” and “KIPP Octavius Catto Charter”. Known for its harsh “no-excuses” program, KIPP had applied in 2017 for a new charter in West Philadelphia, but the school did not open because of an existing location conflict (another KIPP school already occupied the Parkside address). Rather than deny the charter, the SRC granted KIPP an extension in order to find a new location.  APPS stated in an April 20th letter to the Board when this appeared on the April, 2021 agenda, “This Item offers no evidence that KIPP engaged in any outreach to the residents or the schools in the 19139 community.”  As is often the case with KIPP, it is difficult to follow the trail of KIPP schools with similar names as they move to different parts of the city. 
KIPP has settled on 4601 Market Street as the school’s location. The CSO recommended that the Board vote to approve the charter and the amendment request, despite the lack of community outreach or projection of how this would affect nearby schools. The school will now open in  Fall 2022 with grades K-2 increasing to grade 5 by the end of the 5 year charter.  If granted a renewal after 5 years, the school will increase to 8th grade.  Despite KIPP’s history, founders, and donors, the Board voted to allow KIPP to appropriate the name of local African-American civil rights hero Octavius Catto.

The CSO’s  last order of business addressed the 20/21 Charter School renewal cohort. Of the thirteen schools in this cohort, seven are Renaissance charters

The CSO recommended renewals for all schools in the cohort despite the fact that none of them met academic standards. One school, West Philadelphia Achievement Charter,  is still under review. Three schools were recommended for 5-year renewals, eight for renewals with conditions, and one for a 5-year renewal with a surrender clause.  The CSO admitted years ago, on the record, that there are no enforceable consequences for not meeting conditions, but none of the Board members raised that issue. Universal Audenried, which still does not meet academic, organizational or financial standards, was recommended for 5-year renewal with a surrender clause. No Board member asked why the surrender clause Universal agreed to in 2019 was never enforced. Nor did any ask what happened to the surrender clause conditions Universal Vare agreed to in 2019 or why the recommendation despite its failure to meet both academic and financial standards. No Board member asked why they are being recommended for renewal despite not meeting the conditions of the surrender clause.  (The entire cohort can be viewed under Meeting Materials on the Board’s website page.)  Grant told the Board that the limitations imposed by COVID include no PSSA scores, no in-person renewal site rating, and no in-person audits.  These factors combine to make renewal decisions more complicated.  She further noted it will probably be “several years” before the CSO can return to all of the normal renewal structures. After years of testimony from parents and community, and APPS’ research report on Renaissance charters,  President Joyce Wilkerson finally acknowledged on the record that those schools, including four Mastery charters, are failing to meet academic standards. This Board renews substandard charters every year. One example is Math Civics and Science Charter School, recommended for non-renewal for failure to meet standards in all three major categories, but granted by this Board a 5-year renewal with “conditions” that are never enforced. These recommendations are made in private negotiations between the CSO and charter operators. There are no public hearings, and with the disbanding of monthly committee meetings, no other venue to ask why charter operators are dealt with not as public schools funded with taxpayer dollars but as business clients. No clear path has been offered by the CSO or any Board member for addressing the very real problem of underperforming charter schools.

Speakers Shouting into the Wind

After months of APPS public demands to consider the needs of parents, community members and educators, the Board finally moved public speakers up on the agenda, before the Goals and Guardrails extensive data analysis. The Board continues to limit public speakers to thirty and to cut them off after only two minutes. This month the Board voted on ninety-one Items; even if every speaker chose a different topic, the Board precluded any public conversation on sixty-one of them. There is no transparency in the speaker system, so we cannot know how many speakers tried to sign up and were denied the opportunity to be heard by their government on official items or on issues of community concern.  We do know that Eileen Duffey, named Pennsylvania School Nurse of the Year, was told the list was full when she called Wednesday. Thus not only was Duffey, school nurse at the Academy of Palumbo, barred, so was her topic–an $800,000 contract with outside contractors for student COVID testing. Lindback Award winning teacher Zoe Rooney–also a District parent, APPS member, and Parents United coordinator– was denied an opportunity to speak on Items 17 and 19.  APPS members Barb Dowdall and Ilene Poses were also denied their right. As parent Stephanie King said,  If the Board does not want to hear from the public, they should resign.

Goals and Guardrails and Racism

There is little of significance to report about the Board’s one hour and forty-eight minutes of data analysis billed as “Goals and Guardrails”.  This month’s focus  was Guardrail 4, addressing racist practices.  These seemingly interminable discussions show that the Board has begun to mirror Dr. Hite’s style of management: a top-down process which excludes school staff, students, and families most knowledgeable and most affected by Board and District policies and practices. Excluding them cannot result in any significant change in racist practices. 

Hite presented charts, percentages, student groups listed as W,X,Y, and Z, near tracks, and progress.  The focus was two-fold: percent of Black students in special admit schools and number of suspensions along racial lines.   Luckily, parent advocate Stephanie King had testified earlier about how the District’s present practices perpetuate racism. One example: 37% of Central High School’s incoming students are designated as coming from “other”; most of that means private school students.  That information was omitted from Hite’s presentation. Board VP Leticia Egea-Hinton reiterated King’s concerns, but neither she nor any other Board Member demanded an explanation from Hite or asked how he would change it. 

When discussing student suspension rates, Hite noted that professional development in both Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS) and restorative practices is used to avoid suspensions.  PBIS has been flagged in public testimony over the years as having racist underpinnings in the same way that reliance on high stakes standardized testing does. Still,  neither Hite nor the Board questioned the use of PBIS.  Board members asked Hite what would happen if students from the same teacher’s class had high suspension rates?  Hite said that first support would be offered for that teacher but if the teacher continued with increased suspensions, disciplinary action could result.  Apparently the superintendent of all of Philadelphia’s schools didn’t know that teachers don’t suspend students independently, it is only done with principal authorization.  

So much work does need to be done in the District to combat the racism our students encounter.  But District efforts that ignore administration’s own culpability and tries to “enforce” change will not be authentic or effective.

Board Spends Millions More on Outsourced Services

The Board does not total the funds spent each month nor the amount of grants/donations received. APPS calculates that the Board approved over $142 million in contracts this month.

  • Action Item 5: For review only; to be voted on in subsequent Action Meeting. 
  • Action Items 33, 43, 55: Withdrawn by staff. 
  • Action Item 60:  Moved to the I.U. agenda.

Action Item 1, Adoption of Amended Operating Budget for 2020-2021: Passed 7-1, McIver dissenting.  McIver explained that when the budget dedicates just $9 million to school athletics but $30 million to the school police, a clear picture of the Administration’s misaligned priorities emerges.  She argued that a robust athletic program can go a long way to reducing the need for more policing services and/or equipment.  Both Hite and Monson responded with vague indications of how the athletic budget has been increasing and how athletic activities are also found in the extracurricular (EC) portion of the budget.  McIver remained steadfast in her advocacy for athletics over policing. No other Board Member supported her in this quest for reduced policing money and increased athletic money.  Her arguments mirror the very arguments happening on our city streets in reaction to the George Floyd murder one year ago. It is unfortunate that she was the lone dissenting voice.  Budgets are moral documents.  

Fix Lopez raised concerns about money that may be needed for the many unknowns facing the District in September, particularly for mental health needs.  Monson allayed her concern by pointing out  that there is a $100 million open-line item in the budget for just this reason.  He confirmed that  next year will be another leveling up year where teachers are not cut from schools. 

Action Item 2, Adoption of Amended Capital Budget for 2020-2021 & Amended Capital Program for 2021-2026: Passed 6-2, McIver and Fix Lopez dissenting. 

Fix Lopez asked what was happening with the CSPR (Comprehensive School Planning Review)  which has not been reported on in months but seemingly is still in progress. CSPR decisions will have an impact on capital decisions.  McIver concurred with her concerns over the lack of a comprehensive long-term plan.

Action Item 19, Contract with Renaissance and Illuminate Education K-12 Assessments $6,500,000: Passed 7-1, McIver dissenting.   Fix Lopez questioned why this was back on the agenda, after being tabled last month after much public testimony against it.  She noted the Administration had not provided any additional information on this contract. Hite only reiterated what he said last month, that  iReady and STAR are not the same type of assessment so students are not being assessed twice for the same thing. But why do students need any more standardized tests? Fix Lopez apparently accepted this explanation, as McIver was the lone dissenting vote.  

Action Item 42, Sale of former Ada Lewis Middle School Building: tabled. The Board voted unanimously to pass Egea-Hinton’s motion to table. There was no deliberation or explanation, but APPS questions why this and Whittier are being sold at such low prices.  Are negotiations with developers taking place behind the scenes?

Action Item 45, Sale of Whittier School: Passed unanimously.  This Item comes with the condition that Whittier must continue to be used as a school setting. If there is any move to change the use of the building, it will revert to District control. 

Action Items  21 through 24: Passed unanimously.

Action Item 79, KIPP charter:  Passed 5-3, with Fix Lopez, Salley and Wilkerson dissenting.   Board Member Danzy stated before casting her vote that “in other circumstances I would vote no.”  She did not explain what circumstances she was referring to. There was no other deliberation, but we are interested in knowing the dissenters’ objections. (This and Wilkerson’s comments on the charter renewals may indicate a Board  move toward more charter accountability.)

Action Item 80, Pride New Charter Application: Denied unanimously

“ Consent Agenda”, Action Items 3,4, 6-17, 20, 25-32, 34-41, 44-54, 56-59, 61-78: 

All passed.  Egea-Hinton abstained on Action Item18. Fix Lopez abstained on Item 67.