Board Must Reject “Gag Order” Policies

Eyes on the Board of Education: January 27, 2022

by Lisa Haver

The January Action Meeting had been billed as a remote one until members of the community raised objections on social media. The Board reopened all District school buildings this year despite the lack of personal protective equipment, timely Covid testing, and adequate ventilation in classrooms, where there is no social distancing. Yet the Board, with a couple of exceptions, continued to hold only virtual meetings, with some Board members in the auditorium and others at home. Last month it was not clear whether Board Member Cecelia Thompson was present in any way as neither her image nor her name ever appeared. Every once in a while her voice was heard. Ms. Thompson spoke at a rally in Harrisburg earlier this month. There is no reason for her not to attend the Board meeting in Philadelphia. APPS expects all Board members to attend the January meeting in person.  The auditorium provides more than enough space for safe distancing. 

Policy 911 again rears its authoritarian head at the January Board meeting. But this vote on the fourteen policies on the agenda is about more than the policies themselves. It reveals the many ways in which the Board keeps the public in the dark. People can’t protest or testify on things they don’t know the Board is doingWith the adoption of these new  and amended policies, the Board has found several ways to shut the public out. The Board now moves crucial provisions of long-standing policies and rebrands them as “administrative procedures”. The Board then claims that it does not have to take a public vote on changes in procedures or notify the public about them. We first saw the Board use this tactic last year when it gutted the Speaker Policy, placing most of it in the “procedures” section. The Board now justifies its arbitrary changes for public speakers by claiming that they are only changing the procedures, not the policy.  APPS asks again: Why is the Board changing the rules to make it easier for them to hide their actions? Does the fact that the new rules say they don’t have to notify the public of their decisions mean they can’t

Dr. Hite continues to tell the news media that the District encourages teachers who feel sick to stay home. But as teacher Kristin Luebbert pointed out in her Inquirer op-ed, District policy does the opposite: punishes teachers for taking their contractually allotted sick days. The Board should  move now to change this practice in order to protect the health and safety of all the children and adults in Philadelphia public schools.   

If all Items on the agenda are approved at this action meeting, the Board will be spending 

$174, 052, 974 this month. 

Deborah Grill, Diane Payne, Ilene Poses and Lynda Rubin contributed to this report.

Action Items of Note

Find the full list of Items and full descriptions here:

Action Item 1: Adoption of Proposed Board Policies
The Board of Education will consider the amendment of the following policies, in the form attached, at the January Action Meeting:
Policy 004.1 School Board Committees
Policy 115 Career and Technical Education
Policy 138 English Language Development/Bilingual Education Program
Policy 203 Immunizations and Communicable Diseases
Policy 209 Health Examinations/Screenings
Policy 218.1 Weapons
Policy 226 Searches
Policy 331 Employee Travel, Meal, and Expense Reimbursement
Policy 810.3 School Vehicle Drivers (NEW)
Policy 823 Naloxone (NEW)
Policy 904 Public Attendance at School Events
Policy 911 News Media Relations
And the elimination of:
Policy 325 Meal Policy for District Employees
Policy 905 Citizen Advisory Committees

APPS Analysis: The Board will be voting on approval of nine new or amended policies and the elimination of three. Five of the nine policies have been divided into two parts: the policy and the accompanying procedure. This Board developed this strategy in order to make changes in the procedures at any time without any public notice, as they did with the Speaker Policy last year. Policy 911 generated a great deal of public outcry when reviewed by the Board last month, with Board Member Mallory Fix Lopez calling it a “gag order”on District employees. What the Board is considering this month has been almost completely rewritten.  It is not the version reviewed by the Board last month. APPS wrote to the Board last week, telling them that they should follow their standard procedure and have this policy, in essence a new policy, reviewed at both the next Policy Committee meeting and the full Board.

Item  9: Contracts with the Philadelphia Authority for Industrial Development     (PAID) to Fund and Subcontract with one or more Developers for the Development, Construction and Equipping of one or more Capital Projects for the School District ($145,000,000)
The Administration recommends that the Board of Education authorize The School District of Philadelphia, through the Superintendent or his designee, to execute and perform one or more contracts, subject to funding, as follows:
With: Philadelphia Authority for Industrial Development (“PAID”)
Purpose: Intergovernmental cooperation agreements, leases and/or licenses with PAID in order to develop, construct and equip certain capital projects of the School District and the execution of any and all papers and documents and all filings or other actions by or on behalf of the School District necessary or appropriate for the development, construction, and equipping of one or more capital projects for the School District
Start Date: 1/28/2022   End Date: 6/30/2025
Renewal Options: 2 renewals at 2 years each
Compensation per option period not to exceed: $50,000,000
Location(s):  Cassidy, Lewis C. Academics Plus School; Alternative Middle Years (AMY) at James Martin; Thomas Holme School
APPS Analysis:  This action item indicates that PAID will receive $145 million “to develop, construct and equip” capital projects in six District schools with the possibility of two 2-year extensions for another $100 million.  There is no explanation of what those projects are, just a mention that they are included in the FY22 capital budget or the Five Year Capital Improvement Program. There is no link to that budget or plan. The item description further states that these undisclosed projects will be designed to meet the Districts Program Requirements, Design Standards, Educational and Technical Specifications; that the District will participate in the selection of vendors for design and construction; that the District will  monitor the projects’ progress. There is no link to any of the District requirements or standards mentioned in the item description, nor identification of who will monitor the construction and generate the reports. Two years ago, the District’s poor planning and oversight of the construction for the co-location of Benjamin Franklin High School and Science Leadership Academy put students and staff in a physically dangerous and toxic environment and cost the District $40 million more than the original $10 million projected cost.   The Board absolved Dr. Hite and his administration of all responsibility for the Ben Franklin/SLA debacle. The Board should provide  more information on how the District will do better this time.

Item 10: Amendment of Contracts for Asbestos Abatement for Various Schools – Associated Specialty Consulting, Inc, Delta/BJDS, Inc, Diamond Huntbach Construction Corporation, Pepper Environmental Services, Inc and Prime Group Remediation, Inc. ($3,000,000)

The Administration recommends that the Board of Education authorize The School District of Philadelphia, through the Superintendent or his designee, to execute and perform one or more contracts, subject to funding, as follows:
Associated Specialty Consulting, Inc.
Delta/BJDS, Inc.
Diamond Huntbach Construction Corporation
Pepper Environmental Services, Inc.
Prime Group Remediation, Inc.
Purpose: General Contracts for asbestos abatement
Start date: 1/31/2020  End date: 1/31/2022
Amended End Date:  1/31/2023
Compensation not to exceed: $3,000,000
APPS Analysis:  The start and end dates here indicate that the $3 million expenditure will pay for work already done by these companies. Will the Facilities Office be presenting on the success of that work? Why is the Office of Environmental Service asking for a one-year extension on this work?  $3,000,000 over two years  is a relatively low amount for the asbestos remediation needed across the District. The action item description provides inadequate information to the public.  The Healthy Schools Initiative organization continues to be concerned that the District  information is “highly edited and carefully selected” even though the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act states that “documents are legally required to be public documents.”  Parents, teachers and the public are still left out and they have decried the Board’s lack of  transparency and collaboration in this matter.  This action item does not tell which schools are being remediated or how the $3 million has been spent; it is a continuation of a previous action item from Jan. 2022.  What conditions necessitated more allocation of funds?  Where and how was this previous allocation of funds spent?

Action Item 12: Change Orders With Various Vendors ($263,959)
The Administration recommends that the Board of Education authorize The School District of Philadelphia, through the Superintendent or his designee, to execute and perform amendments of contracts to account for change order modifications to on-going construction projects at various locations, as follows:
Allstates Mechanical, Ltd.
Eagle Mechanical, Inc.
Ernest Bock & Sons, Inc.
Dolan Mechanical, Inc.
Five Star, Inc.
Paramount Electrical Service, LLC
Murphy Quigley Company, Inc.
Edward J. Meloney, Inc.
McGoldrick Electric Inc.
Mulhern Electric Company, Inc.
Purpose: To pay additional amounts necessitated by change orders for ongoing construction projects
Start Date:  1/28/22
End Date:  Through completion dates for previously approved contracts
Compensation not to exceed: $263,959
APPS Analysis: Change orders are a normal part of building projects.  The companies  performing the construction may have run into unforeseen complications or costs, or  the District might amend its desired outcomes.  The problem with how change orders appear on the Board’s monthly agenda, as APPS has testified many times, is that the generic information gives no information about why these orders are generated. This leaves the door open for financial costs spiraling out of control, as was seen in the Ben Franklin/SLA debacle that expanded to five times its original cost.  The Board has failed to build in any consistent safeguards which could include the Change Order Action Item giving specific information or quarterly updates by the Chief Operating Officer to review each quarters expenditures.  Instead, the Board just rubber stamps without imparting crucial information to the public about the reasons for the change orders.

Action Item  17: Amendment of Grant Agreement with William Penn Foundation
Purpose: To provide professional development to K-3 teachers in early literacy
Grant Start Date:  12/1/2017   
Current End Date:  8/31/2022
Amended End Date:  8/31/2023
Current Amount Granted: $2,062,100
Location:  All Elementary Schools
APPS Analysis: Action Item 17 represents the second extension of a grant from the William Penn Foundation for Early Literacy professional development for K-3 teachers. The Item states: “Grant funding also supports the development of 14 hours of online professional development in early literacy topics that will be owned by the District and can be offered to K-3 teachers throughout the year.” The original grant was approved by the SRC on December 14, 2017. The Board voted to extend the grant on December 10, 2020 through 8/31/2022. The end date for the extension is 8/31/2023. This extension is a no-cost item in that no additional District funds will be spent. The extension then and now cites delays due to the pandemic. (The 12/10/20 extension cited “William Penn Foundation or its affiliates” without naming any of them.)   No vendors are identified in this Item, nor are there any specifics about public vetting and whether and to what degree student instruction may be on-line. Children of K-3 ages are in developmental stages that are critical to their attaining academic and social/emotional skills necessary to their future learning skills and personal development in general. Research shows that pedagogical practice must be attuned to the importance of self-driven play and to learning through interaction with teachers and other students. Any computerized or on-line work by students should be minimized for students at these ages. APPS calls on the Board and Administration to require the William Penn Foundation to provide for public knowledge the identity of companies, or any other affiliates, who are or may participate in this and all future grants.

Item 20: Contract with Big Picture Philadelphia-Vaux Big Picture High School
With:  Big Picture Philadelphia
Purpose: To continue management and operation of educational programming for up to 500 students at Vaux Big Picture High School
Start date: 7/1/2022   End date: 6/30/2025
Compensation not to exceed: $21,000,000
APPS Analysis: in 2013, the SRC closed Vaux High School, citing under-enrollment and poor academic performance.  Four years later, the District reopened the school as a four-way partnership among the District, Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA), Big Picture Philadelphia (BPP) and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT).Vaux was placed in the Innovation Network. Big Picture Inc. was allotted $23 million to operate for five years, through June 2022.  This Action Item will approve an additional $21 million for three years. How has the cost of operating the school risen so quickly?  BPP is paid by the district to operate this school as a public/private partnership.  APPS consistently argues that these partnerships end up whittling at the core of our democratic institution of public education in the guise of innovation or improvement.  Vaux’s most recent School Progress Report (SPR) ratings show that Big Picture has failed to carry out its mission: Achievement SPR score – 0%, Intervene; Progress score – 23%,  Intervene; Climate score – 40%,  Watch. 25% of students attended 95% or more days.              The opening of this school was touted as an innovative model to offer both a quality education option to families in the Sharswood neighborhood as well as to uplift the struggling community.  However, it was the district’s own failing followed by the closing of Vaux that created a school crisis in this neighborhood.  The district’s plan should be to strengthen not abdicate its responsibility to schools.   The PHA website proudly touts its functioning more as part of the private sector than a City agency accountable to all Philadelphians:  “Although we are a public agency, we operate in many ways like a private property management company”, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the very people they serve are those who suffer the most under the “private sector.”  The January 5th devastating Fairmount fire only highlights further the need for PHA to get its own house in order.  Public/private partnerships are not a solution.  Strong democratic institutions better serve the needs of a common good.