Board of Education Joint Committee Meeting: August 13, 2020

by Lynda Rubin

Technical Problems Galore

The Board held its first in-person Committee meeting at 440 since its Joint Committee Meeting on April 23, 2020.  Seven of the eight Board members attended in person, but public viewing and participation continued remotely. The public could view via TV or live-stream, but could testify only by phone. The August 13, 2020 Committee meeting is listed as a remote meeting on the District website. The meeting was held in the large 2nd-floor auditorium.The Board members’ desks were configured in 3 rows of 3 desks per row, following  social-distancing guidelines. Staff and presenters sat off-camera until called up. President Wilkerson did not explain why the Board was abandoning the Zoom format, as the rate of new COVID cases have not significantly decreased in the city.

 Sound quality was extremely poor for the first half of the meeting whether watching on TV or live-stream, and the sounds from the different sources created background noise and echoes. Not only was the audio often unintelligible and distracting, the public could barely read the presentation power-points that were filmed with all of the auditorium lights on. Board member Mallory Fix Lopez,  apparently responding to numerous social media messages, repeatedly asked her colleagues and the presenters to speak into their microphones. About halfway through, the audio on the TV version did improve. The 2-minute delay between the TV viewing and the actual meeting, on top of  the other technical difficulties, made it difficult for the public to participate and may have been the reason only one of the three registered to speak to the first Committee actually gave testimony. In addition, the video went off several times during the meeting. Speakers who were told to call in early to make sure they were connected could not hear the proceedings over the phone. One APPS member was disconnected mid-speech. Some, including two other APPS members, were disconnected before they could speak. Fortunately, they were able to reconnect and give their testimony.  This is not a criticism of District staff, who had to be there in person at risk to themselves, and who worked diligently to reconnect speakers and address the sound issues. The poor audio and video, the fact that no Board member suggested dimming the lights so that the presentations could be seen, the constant reminders to speak into the mic–all demonstrate the Board’s failure to value public engagement. They did make clear the difficulties just in distancing seven people in one room. How are these same Board members and 440 administrative staff so sure that setting up and maintaining a classroom, still finding space for teaching aids equipment, under Covid conditions will be possible for school staff, especially where students move from class to class in middle and high school? 

Board members physically present included President Joyce Wilkerson, Ameen Akbar, Julia Danzy, Mallory Fix Lopez, Leticia Egea-Hinton, Lee Huang, and Angela McGiver. Maria McColgan, who on July 30 vehemently argued for students and staff to return to school buildings in September,  whose statements derided the fears and concerns of the over 100 speakers on July 23, did not attend personally. She did participate by phone, and she was disconnected several times during the meeting. Because the Board members were spaced apart, and there was only one fixed camera, the staff members who were present could not be seen until they came up to present or answer questions. 

The Finance and Facilities Committee convened first; the Student Achievement Committee followed. The agendas of both meetings and the power points can be downloaded from the Board of Education’s Meeting Materials page.

The Chairs of both meetings had to repeatedly remind speakers at the podium to wipe down the microphone and slide-show clicker after their presentations. As with the discovery above that rearranging social distanced desks is more difficult than previously thought, the routine forgetfulness to remember sanitizing practices by even compliant adults in a calmer setting should serve as a reminder of how difficult it will be for children to remember to follow such protections against Covid spread.

The Joint Committee Minutes of June 11, 2020 were approved.

Finance and Facilities Committee

Board Vice President Leticia Egea-Hinton chaired. The agenda included four official presentations.  

Keystone Opportunity Zone (KOZ): Duane Bumb, Philadelphia Commerce Department

The KOZ, a statewide real estate incentive to spur development on blighted and vacant properties, offers a 10-year tax abatement. Hilco Capital, an investment and development company, has applied for the redevelopment of the refinery property in Southwest Philadelphia under the EOP (Economic Opportunity Plan). Hilco needs to get the backing of interested parties, including the District, in order to forgive some taxes. Bumb, who could barely be heard throughout his presentation,  pointed to the hiring of local workers and the wage taxes that the City would accrue as selling points. Upon questioning, Bumb said that Hilco, as a developer, would not do the hiring themselves; they would be employing other contractors who could hire local workers. Huang asked if the state’s 10-year tax abatement would remain in effect, even in the event that the City’s 10-year tax abatement “goes away”.  Bumb said that it would. Wilkerson pointed out that other than verbal promises, the transaction includes no written mandates for jobs for District CTE students and graduates. Egea-Hinton concurred. Wilkerson stated her concern that without such written assurances, verbal promises could be forgotten. In other words, the District is being asked to give up possible revenue in exchange for jobs that might never come to fruition.

Financial Update: Uri Monson, Chief Financial Officer

Monson reviewed the status of the District finances, noting that due to Covid-19  costs and its effect on the economy, “the situation is fluid, if not immediately dire”. The District has seen some savings from having closed schools early in the Spring, although offset by declines in income . In response to a question from Danzy, Monson said that it is hard to say at this point whether the District will be better or worse off at the end of this fiscal period. For example, income from the liquor-by-the-drink tax and other sources will decrease significantly.  Monson told the Board he is more concerned about the uncertainty of funds promised by the federal government via CARES and HEROES acts. Monson reported that there had been additional funds already reserved for paint and asbestos last year. He said that so far the District has not said no to anything. Wilkerson asked if his department has worked on increasing minority participation; we did not hear a response if there was one. Overall, Monson said the problem we have is in the unknowns, as the financial needs for hybrid or digital. He stated this will be a “tight year”.

District Organizational Changes: Naomi Wyatt, Chief of Staff

Wyatt reported that the District has hired a new Chief Operating Officer, Reggie McNeil, who will start on August 24th. McNeil comes from Charleston, SC County School District,  where he was Executive Director of Capital Programs, after serving 20 years in the Navy.

Wyatt reported that Alicia Prince, currently Interim Chief of Facilities Management and Capital Projects, will serve as Interim COO until McNeil begins. 

Wyatt also announced that the Procurement Office is moving to the Office of Finance and that the Comprehensive School Planning Review (CSPR) will move into the Superintendent’s Office.

APPS concerns: The CSPR move directly into Superintendent Hite’s office should raise even more flags about the CSPR process, undertaken last year to recommend changes in enrollment, catchment area borders, co-locations, and closing of neighborhood schools. The non-public meetings of hand-picked representatives from various schools under consideration, conducted by consultants from Flo Analytics, processed a lot of “what ifs” without discussion of their effects on the neighborhood school structure. APPS had demanded from the beginning that all meetings be public; in fact, APPS representatives showed up and acted as non-participating observers. We spoke to students and parents at some of the schools in question, and we testified at Board meetings about our concerns that the District would come up with data to fit into its own planned narrative. Placing this office in the Superintendent’s office heightens such concerns.  APPS members are also concerned about the effect that continual turnover of leadership staff at 440 in the past several years has on the dwindling institutional memory about the District’s history of service to the city’s children. We will continue to question the Board about spending large sums of money on corporate training of upper-level staff when that money is desperately needed in the schools themselves.

Facilities Report Update: Alicia Prince, Interim Chief of Facilities and Capital Projects

Prince stated that plumbing, carpentry and pest control have been priorities.  She referred to the overall number of work orders for cleaning, asbestos floor removal, and other projects.  Citing such numbers does not inform the public about specific buildings or how many classrooms/schools the square footage represents.

Prince moved rapidly through figures on the slide about updates. She reported that the District has reached its goal of hiring 237 assistants. The District currently has increased its number of general cleaners to 738, having added 75 positions. 

Danzy asked about the number of boilers still needing replacement. She pointed out that  every time a boiler has been replaced, asbestos was discovered. Prince replied that boilers are replaced after the asbestos abatement is complete. Danzy then asked how workers can be sure that more asbestos won’t be discovered even after the boiler is replaced; we heard no answer to that. In answer to Danzy’s question about the number of operational windows in school buildings, Prince replied that 73 of 93 work orders on this have been completed. Unfortunately, no Board member asked the total number of windows in all buildings or how many still have not been issued work orders. 

Huang asked what concrete information will the District be sharing with parents? He also asked what does “ready” really mean? We did not hear a reply to the question. 

Egea-Hinton asked about the status of cleaning supplies. Prince responded that the District had increased its supplies just before the Covid shut-down, so the District is in good stead. No Board member asked whether any of those supplies were used in the deep cleaning of the schools nor did any address longstanding teacher complaints about the lack of cleaning supplies.  Board members also asked whether the cleaners work 10 or 12 months, are they working now in schools,  and whether the buildings would be in shape for the possible October 21st plan.  Prince said cleaners are 12-month workers who returned in June and are now decluttering. The quick assurances and promises about personnel increases invoke an ominous deja vu of the inaccurate information given to staff and parents last year that downplayed the levels of asbestos, lead and pests in many buildings. 

Discussion of Action Items

The Committee discussed fewer than half of the Agenda Items.  Board member Akbar asked about how technology was to be integrated into the classroom, particularly Zoom systems. Huang voiced general concerns for the number of Change Orders.  McIver had a question about Item #7 FEMA/PEMA Reimbursement of Costs Related to COVID-19 (($15,000,000). She stated that she needed clarification because the description of the Item was so brief, she wasn’t sure what she’d be voting on. Monson replied that it was more of a technical application step because the shut-down occurred prior to the District’s application.

 Public Speakers

Central High student Akayla Morris expressed concerns about how incidents of racial animus toward students of color were handled at GAMP where she’d been a student. She related the story of a white girl who was allowed to apologize for hate language instead of receiving a more severe consequence because staff didn’t want to hurt the girl’s chances of high school acceptance. She also spoke about how the percentage of students of color admitted to Central is not consistent with the citywide percentage for those same ethnic categories.  Two more speakers, a student and a community stakeholder, had signed up to speak, but were not on the phone when called, possibly because of technical problems. 

That concluded the Finance and Facilities Committee meeting. 
APPS Concerns: The Committee structure was instituted by the Board in 2018 as a way to provide time to deliberate on issues and to conduct a dialogue with the community.  Very few of the Action Items were deliberated on at this meeting.  Actually, the level of dialogue had diminished even before the meetings became remote. Most of this meeting was taken up by the nine official (plus two unofficial) presentations and the subsequent discussion about them. Members of the public, granted the usual three minutes, got little response from Board members. Committee meetings should present an opportunity for parents, teachers, students and  community advocates to provide information about  what is happening at their schools and to tell the Board what they need to address specific problems. Board members should use Committee meetings to get a fuller picture of real school experiences, not just official presentations from City and District administrators.

Student Achievement and Support Committee

Board member Angela McIver chaired this Committee meeting.

The agenda and the power-point slides (p 29-54) for the five presentations can be downloaded from the Board of Education’s Meeting Materials page.

Reopening Update School Year 2020-2021:  Chief of Staff Naomi Wyatt, in response to a question from Board member Akeem Akbar, said that Google Classrooms will be used as both the District’s primary on-line management tool and instruction medium. Zoom will be used for teaching class as a whole and for break-out groups. Akbar responded that he just wanted to ensure that this was not just another technology tool that would be unused in the future. (Was that an endorsement of expanding blended learning?)  Wyatt referred to the timelines and charts for the Digital Learning Implementation through Readiness Goals for future implementation of a hybrid model.  Wyatt stated the decision to move into a hybrid model will be made “according to health data”. Only one quarter of the supplies needed were ordered because they did not know which plan (digital or hybrid) would be used. Principals have been charged with preparing and submitting their schools’ operation plans by August 22nd. Two have been submitted so far. Wyatt stated all buildings will comply with ventilation needs for staff who want to go into their buildings early to retrieve supplies. Of the six categories in the District Readiness report,  four are listed as “On Target”: Digital Enablement, Staff Coverage, Operational Readiness and Academics. People Preparedness and Building Readiness were rated “Slightly Off Track”. None were designated “Needs Focus”. Wyatt said that updates are presented bi-weekly.  In response to Board members’ questions, Wyatt said there will be a  pre-opening training week for teachers and a week of online orientation for students. She said the District will meet the CDC guidelines of  6-foot distancing. Fix Lopez asked about the difference between school-wide and individual school readiness and how or when the community will learn about a particular school’s readiness. She asked if air quality referred to classrooms or areas of the building. Wyatt said each school has its own checklist for instruction and the building, which did not answer Fix-Lopez’s question. Ega-Hinton asked for specifics on academic goals and digital plans and textbooks, for example, whether there will be a standardized curriculum throughout the District. How will achievement be measured? Wyatt replied that there is a standard and the District will show Scope and Sequence for the first week, which did not seem to answer the question. McIver asked about the indications that a return to school may not be possible even after the first marking period, especially considering there is still no widespread testing. Wyatt replied that the PA Department. of Education issued guidelines last week. (APPS note: A review of those guidelines indicates that there are not clear enforcement rules; they seem to be suggestions more than regulations. In addition, social media posts from District teachers indicate that the state of readiness described in the official report is nowhere near the reality teachers are dealing with at present.)

Charter School Office Update: Christina Grant, Chief of CSO

(This presentation was not listed on the official Agenda.) The CSO has received all 86 charter school plans for the 2020 opening. Four will be using a hybrid approach; 82 are starting the year all-virtual. Grant did not identify those beginning in person. Board members’ questions covered busing needs for the four hybrids and whether the charter schools have sufficient technology. Grant said that charter schools are, for the most part, following District dates and procedures. 

Fix Lopez asked about recent uptick in charter school ads and asked if the District had a policy of handling students transferring to charters temporarily.  

Grant said the CSO will learn from the four charter schools going hybrid as to how things work.  

Climate and Culture Initiatives:  Abigail Gray, Deputy Chief Climate and Culture.

Gray referred to Slide p 37 to 46 for Research, Core Programs and Other Initiatives.  Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS), and Social-Emotional Learning methods, including daily meetings. Other initiatives include Youth Courts and School Equity and Anti-Racism programs which Gray described as individual tools in a “toolbox” of resources. Not addressed was the need for more in-house staff supports such as counselors, nurses, librarians, NTA’s. (Support staff  have the ability to take the angry, upset, acting-out student out of class so as not to disrupt the classroom and to give students time to calm down and learn skills to help them control themselves. Teachers can then go on with their lessons to all of the other students.) 

Wilkerson said her school visits have shown a disparity between schools with climate models that work and those that don’t. There was some disagreement among Board members about whether this is caused by a school’s lack of will or principal buy-in or other barriers. McIver asked who exactly in the schools are charged with carrying out these programs besides teachers; no reply was heard.  Fix Lopez reported the general frustration teachers have with such programs, often repackaged,  that are rolled out with each new administration: “Teachers live this every day. Until teachers are involved in planning and not being the only ones responsible for executing it, along with their various teaching duties, we will not make sustained progress.”  This discussion reinforces the disconnect between Administration’s design planning and expectations for how these programs will work in schools and the schools’ ability to actually  implement them.  Fix Lopez pointed to another wrench in operating these social-emotional programs when substitute teachers are in schools. She seemed to be raising the question about whether there will be a higher need for subs during the Covid crisis, and she raised the possibility of having in-house substitutes to maintain school climate initiatives in class and out. Huang asked whether there were recent studies on what constitutes success with such programs. Gray said there were not, adding that any teacher who carries it out well can be an “inside trainer.” Huang asked how these programs will work virtually. Gray replied that teachers could hold “community meetings with students”  asking open-ended questions.  Akbar stated that when he asked former school students, 18-21 years old, what made the difference in their school experiences in school, they replied “You guys. There’s no #2.” He cautioned against anti-racist work being “to” kids and not “with” them, citing PBIS and Youth Courts. Akbar concluded his comment by stating, “If I have to attend another meeting where students complain about how they were ignored, I’m going to lose it.” Akbar has been a teacher and administrator in charter schools, but he did not specify whether he was talking about just charter students.

PDE School Improvement Plans: Tonya Wolford, Chief of Evaluation, Research and Accountability

Wolford’s presentation referred to charts and graphs on the School Improvement Plan, in particular Overall School Priorities for Achievement and supports to be provided by academic areas, college readiness and talent development. Climate priorities, including attendance and suspension, were assessed by how many schools were using particular programs. Wolford noted that the multi-year plan was cut short by school buildings closing in March, 2020. Board members’ questions included how to account for suspensions and attendance and the possibility of plagiarism and academic accountability under the Virtual plan. 

Proposed Black Lives Matter Resolution 

[The resolution in question can be accessed by going to the Joint Committee Agenda and clicking on its link under Student Achievement Committee Presentations.

President Wilkerson stated that she has received “calls” for formal District support for participation in  a week of action and education to promote Black Lives Matter At School during the first week of February. All Board members are in favor of participating in the Black Lives Matter At School week; some spoke in favor of the need to do more than just participating in this one week.

Discussion on Action Items

Fix Lopez questioned the need for Action Item #1, Contract with KJR Consulting for Professional Development ($700,000). She noted that the Item was listed as originating with the Superintendent’s office, but she objected to passing it based on the following concerns: How would passing this reconcile with recent Board discussions about building “internal capacity”;  there is currently a hiring freeze; the District has personnel working in this area already. Chief of Staff Wyatt responded that the District has worked with KJR since 2018 on “mindset work”. Fix Lopez then noted that KJR works mostly with corporate executive-level employees. Egea-Hinton added that the work should be done with people “closer to our roots.” Wyatt defended the contract because KJR “understands our Leadership team” and works well with them.

APPS concerns: This $700,000 consulting firm contract represents a continuation of the District’s practice of hiring outside contractors for just about every task the District has. Increasing Internal capacity in the District would establish an in-house training staff to provide knowledgeable, consistent training and support, as an on-going cost-effective resource for District employees and needs. Local staff and community stakeholders, including former Board member Dr. Chris McGinley, have urged the Board to increase its internal capacity in several areas. In past meetings, Board members have agreed with the value of increasing such internal capacity, but have yet to act on that. It has, instead, voted at meeting after meeting to hire outside corporate and legal firms. The administration’s rationale that they are “comfortable” with KJM staff is reason enough for the Board to deny the contract. Such decisions shouldn’t be made based on how well the company gets along with administrators. They should be based on who can best do the job for Philadelphia students and staff at a reasonable cost. The District has already used District staff experienced in racial equity training to conduct training on a volunteer basis. The District should continue with this training, but should pay those professionals for their services. 

Item #24, Contract with Urban Affairs Coalition, Philadelphia High School for Girls ($30,000).  Fix Lopez raised questions about why the need for this type of program was not raised at the June 11 Action meeting when the Board voted  to accept a $493,279 grant from PSP (Philadelphia School Partnership) for a program called Keys to My Success, which the GHS Alumni Association had to agree to accept. 

APPS concerns: APPS is concerned about the increasing influence on District policy and funding being exerted by PSP, Neubauer Family Foundation and other “philanthropists”. It seems they are making more decisions about how education is to be delivered in our District while using such “donations” to make way for increased hiring of their preferred companies.

Public Speakers Interrupted

Ten speakers–parents, District staff and community stakeholders–signed up to speak.  Once again, the phone link was not in sync with the TV and live-stream audio playback. This made for a haphazard and stressful experience for speakers to be ready when called to address the Board. The Speakers’ portion of the meeting was further marred when Speaker #3 and those waiting to be called were suddenly disconnected. 

Since this writer was one of several speakers whose connections were cut off and had to figure out how to reconnect, I am not able to describe speakers’ testimony because I didn’t hear those after me. The public portion of these meetings Is essential to public discourse as well as satisfying the requirements  of the Sunshine Act. When the video or audio is so disrupted as to impair public listeners tuning in to watch and hear the business being discussed and comments made by and to the Board, it defeats the purpose of having observation and participation by the public. The validity of such meetings comes into question.

Those listed to testify before the Student Achievement and Support Committee were as follows:

Lisa Haver, APPS — Action Item 1, KJR Consulting Contract $700,000

Kristin Luebbert, District Staff — Supervision and Accountability

Zoe Rooney, Parent/Staff — Remote Learning Schedules; Special Ed  

Lynda Rubin, Community —Parents/public stakeholders aren’t Customers

Silvia Sanchez, District Staff — Supports for special needs students on-line?

Sara Vargas, District Staff — Board’s Response to Reopening Plan

Charlie McGeehan, District Staff — Action Item #1 KJR Consulting Contract

Youra Lin, Parent — Distance Learning

Karel Kilimnik, APPS –Action Item 10 Contracts — Outside Legal firms

Cecelia Thompson, Parent — Update -Cleaning/Repairs & Safe Site centers