Board of Education Joint Committee: December 3, 2020

by Lynda Rubin

Only a few months ago, Board members discussed the possibility of closing more neighborhood schools in response to the projected budget crisis. Now they are considering layoffs and furloughs of teachers and support staff.  Their promise earlier this year only to approve essential contracts quickly went by the wayside. Their scheduling of a special Policy Committee meeting, billed as a first step in reassessing the 10-year old Renaissance charter initiative, didn’t even broach the subject of reform; its purpose apparently was to reassure charter operators that the public trough would remain filled. 

President Joyce Wilkerson, Vice-president Leticia Egea-Hinton, Angela McGiver, Lee Huang, Mallory Fix Lopez, Julia Danzy and Maria McColgan attended. Egea-Hinton chaired the Joint Committee Meeting.  The Board approved  the November 5, 2020 Minutes.   Egea-Hinton announced that the first day of New Charter Applications Hearings will be held on Tuesday, December 22, 2020. Each of the five applicants will have 15 minutes to present their information. There will be other hearings between then and the Board vote in February; those dates have not been announced. The December 22 hearing is the only one at which the public can testify. 

In reference to Action Item 14–Authorization to Execute Contracts for Teacher Residency Program with Drexel University, Relay Graduate School of Education, Temple University and Urban Teachers for $1,275,000 — Chief of Staff Alicia Prince reported that she and Chief Talent Officer Lisa Shambaugh met with representatives of Drexel, Relay, Temple and Urban Teachers. Urban Teachers is a Baltimore-based non-profit training teachers, funded by corporate and foundation interests including Carnegie Foundation, Walton Foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Marriott Foundation, Dell Foundation, and the AT&T Foundation.  Like Relay GSE, Urban Teachers is not accredited in Pennsylvania and does not have graduate school accreditation itself, but has an arrangement with John Hopkins School of Education to sign off on their residents’ degrees. Unlike Relay GSE,  Urban Teachers does not include the word “Graduate” in its name. (Former School Board member Dr. Chris McGinley referred to Relay as a “fake graduate school”.)  Relay has been denied accreditation in Pennsylvania.  Prince stated that approval of this item would authorize a $1200 stipend to each teacher and $1000 stipend to mentors. The current 100 applicants are Philadelphia District teachers; 63 are now in the program as residents. Fix Lopez interrupted to clarify that 100 former applicants had been retained out of a total of 192 applicants. She asked for information about their retention rate in the District. Fix Lopez also noted that the University of Pennsylvania had terminated its involvement in the program and asked why. Shambaugh told her that Penn did not say why, but she speculated that the District had an expectation of at least 15 residents every year  from each of the contracted partners, and Penn had last recruited fewer than 11 students. Shambaugh stated that the District has a different teaching fellowship arrangement with Penn, including student teaching, but did not offer details. Egea-Hinton asked how the residents are recruited. Shambaugh answered that this is done mainly by the contracted entities. She added that 30-50% of the candidates are of color.

Student Achievement and Support Committee

Chair Angela McGiver asked Board members for questions about December Action items. (Committees have discontinued their practice of recommending passage or denial of individual Items.) Six Items involving contracts were included on the SAS Committee agenda. 

 Fix Lopez asked about Action Item 4–Authorization of a Donation from the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia for STEM Learning Resources, Donation valued at $500,000.  This Item proposes  STEM micro-grants for programs from Mystery Science (K-5) and Gizmos (9-12).  Fix Lopez said that she had read in the Item about micro-grants for twelve District schools but that language had not been in the Item’s description.  It seemed that there were either two different versions of the same Item or the Item had been re-numbered.  They finally figured out that the language Fix Lopez had seen was still in the Item 4 copy for the December 10 Action Meeting agenda but for some reason had been omitted from the Item on the Committee agenda. 

(APPS members have experienced this frustration often when Items are moved up on the agenda and re-numbered or when the content is changed without any notice. We now take screen-shots of most official District Items.) Prince then explained that this grant will be spent on a pilot program for twelve schools, and that the schools themselves have to apply. Fix Lopez raised questions about equity, as she did last month, including the difficulties that some schools have in learning about and applying for such programs. Fix Lopez asked whether other options for notice and applications could be made available so that more schools were able to apply for any programs in a timely fashion. She said that  she had previously asked for an audit of the number and location of responses for other grants  in order to gauge whether schools truly have true equity in these matters.

Public Speakers

ELL expert and APPS member Cheri Micheau once again testified about ACCESS testing for English Language Students. Micheau has extensive knowledge of the laws about teaching and testing of English Learners and how they are implemented in the District. She spoke about federal and state requirements and of Covid’s effect on the District’s ability to comply. She commented on the District’s attempt to contact ELL families regarding coming into buildings for testing and offered some guidance and understanding about parent reactions. Parent of Special needs child and School District Parent Advisory Board member Cecelia Thompson spoke about the technical barriers many students and parents continue to face.  She said that students in grades K-2 must have someone home during instruction and that students with autism are not being well served. Thompson told the Board that the District needs to reevaluate how to better instruct such students, including how to better use “hybrid teachers”.  Thompson said she hopes the District does not intend to send students back to school buildings with all the present unknowns. APPS member, retired teacher, advocate for school libraries Barbara Dowdall  lamented that the District is “laser focused on test scores” which undercuts children’s experiencing the joy of learning and their chance to become life-long learners. She reminded the Board of  the importance of well funded libraries with certified librarians both in schools and neighborhoods as a prime investment into moving children out of poverty and staying safe. 

Finance and Facilities Committee

Chair Leticia Egea-Hinton brought up Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson, who updated the Board on the District’s current and projected financial state. (As usual, and despite repeated requests from APPS members, none of this meeting’s presentations were posted before the meeting. They were posted during the meeting and can be found here. (Click on Presentation Deck.)  

Monson reported that the current  Quarterly Report projects a negative fund balance of $33 million. This projection was made prior to the change in the reopening plan; some schools had been scheduled to reopen mid-November but remain closed because of the most recent Covid surge. Monsoon characterized the District’s fiscal outlook as “fluid”. Additional closures mandated by the City will almost certainly result in further reduction in tax revenues from both Liquor-by-the-Drink and Use and Occupancy taxes. However, the delay in reopening schools has meant a $12 million savings in substitute teacher costs and $15 million savings in transportation related costs. Monson further stated that there could be $13 million savings by not filling vacant positions, not hiring supplemental teachers, and reducing or eliminating underutilized contracts. Monson stated that projections and mitigation efforts change daily, but they still indicate a negative fund balance of at least  $11 million. The District continues to identify additional expenditure reductions of  pandemic related savings, savings in contracted services, limited furloughs or layoffs. Monson made a brief reference about charter costs, saying that allotments for charter schools are equivalent to those for District schools. None of the Board members pointed out that the District has incurred significant stranded costs with yearly charter expansion. 

A chief financial officer is expected to view District issues  through a financial lens. Not always given equal time at Committee meetings are educator and community  perspectives  on the educational and societal costs of charters to students, families and taxpayers.  The Board has now added teacher/staff layoffs and furloughs to the list of proposed remedies–along with closing more neighborhood public schools. The Board continues to approve multi-million contracts to outside companies for non-essential, redundant assessment programs, as it did with the recent Canvas contract.  The Board also refuses to consider even basic charter reform.  The Board’s spending on these programs makes layoffs and school closings inevitable. Is that a deliberate strategy?  

Chief Operating Officer Reggie McNeill narrated the  Facilities Update Presentation with updates on the construction schedule of what he referred to as “the New School on Ryan Avenue”.  This new school will replace Meehan and is part of a reconfiguration of students and grades in the Mayfair area. 

  • Pollock, Holm and J. H.  Brown, currently K-6, will add grade 7 in 2021-22 and grade 8 in 2022-23. The catchment boundaries of nearby feeder schools will  change. 
  • Forrest, currently K-6, will become a K-5 in 2021-22 and maintain that grade configuration. (Actually, Forrest will return to a K-5 enrollment as it had been until 2009.) 
  • Mayfair, currently K-8 with K-1 housed at Meehan, will retain its K-8 configuration; K-1 will be returned to Mayfair School in 2022-23.
  • Meehan, currently 7-8 and housing Mayfair’s K-1 will continue this through 2021-22. Meehan will only have grade 8 in 2021-22 and  is scheduled to close at the end of that school year.
  • New School at Ryan Avenue will open 2021-22 with K-7 and will become K-8 by 2022-23.

McNeill described this as a “turnkey project” in which the developer buys the property then sells it back to the District upon completion. None of the Board members questioned the District’s agreement to sell the property to the developer. The transaction must have taken place before construction began in March 2020–did the Board approve the sale in any Item prior to that? Does this deal benefit the District or the developer?  Later, APPS members were shocked to hear Egea-Hinton say that the Board had “learned” from the SLA/Ben Franklin experience. Does that mean the Board will look the other way if this project becomes another expensive debacle? 

Fix Lopez proposed that the new NE school be named “Daniel J. McGinley Elementary” in honor of the recently deceased  former District teacher, principal and principals’ union organizer. Daniel McGinley is Chris McGinley’s father. 

Fix Lopez asked about Item 22–License/Purchase of Assets with The Trust for Public Land at James R. Lowell Elementary School for $250,000.  Revisiting her concerns about equity, she asked McNeill why Lowell School was selected and whether this a replacement or enhancement of an existing playground or construction of a playground where none had existed.  How was Lowell chosen for the project? McNeill replied that The Trust for Public Land, came to the District about the availability for partial funding of the project ($600,000) along with the District’s cost of $250,000. McNeill’s partial explanation of the arrangement with Public Land raised more questions than it answered. 

Who is the Trust for Public Land?  What property is being bought and sold–playground equipment or the land on which the playground sits or both? The Item states:  “The Trust for Public Land will work with PlayCore Wisconsin, Inc. to perform this work. Once the playground improvements have been completed, the School District will purchase the playground improvements from The Trust for Public Land  under the terms of a Purchase of Assets Agreement.”   Fix Lopez asked how the choice of Lowell was made, saying that while she is not against Lowell having this work done, there are many schools without any playground that would make an important addition to the schools and which those communities want. She further noted that a nice playground can be built for $50,000-$60,000. She then questioned the choice of refurbishing and upgrading Lowell’s playground while other schools have no playgrounds at all. Fix Lopez pursued the issue, asking how this kind of expenditure comes to the table and what the total cost will be. Does the $250,000 represent 50% of the total budget, or 1% of the total budget. McNeill said he’d get back to her. (He did not specify when, but we believe it should be at the December 10 Action Meeting–before the Board votes.)  

Fix Lopez’s  questions begot more questions. Who is the developer and what is their role in the selecting of this project?  Just because The Trust for Public Land was able to offset funding by $600,000 doesn’t make it a good deal, and especially a necessary deal for the District. She said that the entire selection process needs to be scrutinized.

Fix Lopez also asked where the Facilities Office was with establishing the Environmental Committee Oversight Board. She noted that personnel changes in the Chief Operation Officer, along with Covid issues, have delayed implementation. McNeill said that he expected the first meeting to be held in January 2021. McNeill responded to Fix Lopez’s question that the meeting would be public.

Wilkerson asked about Item 18–Amendment of Contract with Visual Sound for Classroom Audio-Visual Technology and Services ($7,100,000). She asked whether this is the end of the original contract additions and how long will it last; she expressed her concern about technology items tending to not last long. Prince responded that it would cover 6500 classrooms with training, maintenance and 24-hour tech support. Wilkerson noted that the original contract in 2017 for $40 million is now adding $7.1 million to the tab. This represents  an ongoing problem  with the funding of many District contracts. What seems financially doable, at its first contract installment, becomes an increasing expenditure on top of other initial and renewable contracts. APPS has raised this issue many times over the years. It isn’t just what the Board commits to in any given year, it’s how the financial ticket gets punched over the years–thus making an austerity budget seem to be inevitable. 

APPS member Lisa Haver, the only public speaker for this committee, called on the Board President and Board Members to apologize to the Director and staff of the District’s Charter Schools Office for failing to defend them against baseless accusations of racial bias and discrimination in their charter renewal recommendations. She referred to allegations made by a coalition of charter operators, in a press conference earlier this month, that Black charter operators were being targeted for non-renewal at a rate higher than those run by White operators. Haver noted that “no proof was asked for and none was offered” to back up these claims. She compared the failure of the Board and Superintendent Hite to stand up for District staff to that of the elected officials who have remained silent while election workers were accused of cheating. Haver also asked why no Board member took the opportunity  “to ask the lead spokesperson for the coalition, one of the two CEOs of Global Leadership Academy Charter , after she complained about inadequate funding, why the GLA board paid her over $403K per year to operate one school, or why the CEO of GLA Huey made over $300K/year, thus costing taxpayers almost ¾ million dollars just to pay two GLA administrators.”  None of the Board members apologized to the Charter Schools Office staff or responded in any way. 

Before adjourning the meeting, Egea-Hinton surprised observers by announcing that  this would be the final Joint Committee Meeting. She did not explain how the Committees would function in the future other than to say that the Board has come up with a 5-year plan based on its “Goals and Guardrails”. The Board should tell the public at the December 10 Action Meeting whether Committees will be meeting in January 2021. 

Two new Action Items have been added to the December 10th Action Meeting:

Item 28: Five Year Goals and Guardrails (added 12/3/20)

Included are links to 3 items:

·      Summary of Goals and Guardrails

·      5 year Monitoring Calendar

·      SY20-21 Superintendent Evaluation Template


Item 29:  Review of Proposed Board Policy (REVIEW- NO ACTION- Added 12/4/20) The Board will be voting on revision and deletion of Board charter policies

The meeting concluded after 2 hours and 48 minutes.