Board of Education Joint Committee Meeting: November 5, 2020

by Lynda Rubin

The remote meeting of the Student Achievement and Support Committee and the Finance Committee did little to clear up the issues around building re-openings and the ventilation reports at the heart of the matter. But when “Green” does not mean “Go” but something like” possibly close to Go”, few definitive answers were heard. 

 Angela McIver, Lee Huang,  Julia Danzy, Maria McColgan, President Joyce Wilkerson attended. The Committee approved Minutes of the October 8, 2020 Joint Committee Meeting. 

Student Achievement and Support Committee

Angela McIver chaired this portion of the meeting. She opened by directing the other Board members to ask only “clarifying questions” and to save more in-depth questions for Dr. Hite at the November 19 Action Meeting.  Should independent Board members be told what kind of questions they should ask–even before any information was presented? Weren’t we told that the purpose of Committee meetings was to take a more in-depth look at the issues and to conduct more public dialogue on them?  The compliance of this Board is disturbing. More than one Board member, including President Wilkerson, has said publicly that the job of the Board is to support the Administration.  That statement flies in the face of the Board’s actual mission, which is to represent the people of the city, in particular the children, parents, and educators of the District. It also sheds light on the Board’s failure to hold Hite accountable for the harm done to students and staff at Benjamin Franklin High School as detailed in the Inspector General’s report.    

Chief Academic Officer Malika Savoy-Brooks narrated the slide presentation on the Hite administration’s re-opening plan. 

(The Board continues to withhold the information in official meeting presentations until the meeting, preventing members of the public from offering informed comments on them.) 

The colors of the circles in the graphics–red, yellow and green–continue to confuse rather than clarify. District designations of what should be a simple color code are: Green–On Track;  Yellow–Slightly Off Track; Red–Needs Focus. Not one of them means “Ready”. Questioning from Board members revealed that Green/On Track does not mean classrooms or buildings are ready to go; it means that the District has decided that they are where they expected to be at this stage. None of the Board members expressed frustration that these questions were raised at previous meetings or that the code remains a model of obfuscation. Green means “go” everywhere except at 440. After months in which this could have been made more understandable, it appears the real effort has gone into making it appear that things have progressed when they have not. Board member Angela McIver asked Chief of Staff Alicia Prince what Green means to them, saying,  “I’ve been reading green wrong. I thought it meant the item was accomplished.” How has the Board missed this after so many months?  Designations like “Slightly Off Track” tell us very little, and that lack of honesty leads to students and staff being placed in dangerous situations.  The 5-part  “Return to Learn – Reopening Readiness Report” item rated an overall Green/On Track, with one component, “Digital Enablement”, given a Yellow/Slightly Off Track.  The Green designation for  “Building Readiness”  means nothing close to actual readiness.Why does the Board continue to accept this inadequate self-regulation on the part of the Administration?  

Board Has No Questions about  Action Items

Two Items were placed on the Committee for consideration;  Item 10, Ratification of Contracts and Amendments with Various Pennsylvania Approved Private School and Private Schools – Out of District Special Education Placements  ($1,500,000 );  

IU Item 1 (Intermediate Unit), Amendment to Contract and Option to Extend Term Agreement with Public Consulting Groups, Inc. for Additional Services, as Part of the District’s EasyIEP and EasySystem Electronic Special Education Compliance and Management System ($386,000). None of the Board members had any questions or comments on either. 

Public Speakers Comment on Renaissance Charters, Special-Admit Applications

APPS member and ELL expert Cheri Micheau expressed her concerns regarding counselors having sufficient access to working with ELL students on high school selection. She asked why the deadline was not extended, given the problems created during the quarantine. She pointed out that the demographics of special admission schools do not represent those in the city, despite the Legare Decision regarding the rights of Special Education and ELL students. Micheau repeated her long-standing opposition to the District’s  emphasis on test scores for students whose knowledge and talents are not reflected in their test scores. 

Lisa Haver, retired teacher and APPS co-founder, told the Board that she and other APPS members had been attending the remote non-renewal hearings on Universal Bluford and Universal Daroff. She said  it was obvious that Universal had no case against the charge that they had failed to provide their students with a quality education, as the data clearly shows; thus they are insinuating that Charter School Office bias is responsible. These hearings are costing hundreds of thousands of dollars that could be spent in District classrooms. Haver told the Board again that  Board Policy 141 on Renaissance Schools gives the Board legal recourse to “use its discretion” about renewal or non-renewal. Haver also cautioned that Board policies must not be amended to diminish its oversight responsibilities of these schools. Haver pointed out that Universal pays its CEO over $200,000 annually, but that none of the Universal schools has rated above “Intervene”, the lowest SPR rating, for at least the past three years.

Finance and Facilities Committee 

Board Member Lee Huang chaired this portion of the meeting.

Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson presented a financial update including the FY21 Quarterly Report, to be released to the public on November 13.  

That report shows a revised projected FY year-end negative fund balance of $33.1 million, caused by a reduction in local tax revenues and an increase in District operating expenditures.  Danzy asked about the increased costs of charter schools. If their student numbers were lower, couldn’t they add from the waiting list? Uri said this figure was based on actual invoices, reminding the Board that charter waiting lists are composed by the charter operators and had many of the same students on multiple lists. Etea-Hinton asked if cyber charters can just add students to their rolls at will requiring the District to pay for those students;  Monson replied that we pay cybers the same rate as brick and mortar charter schools. Egea-Hinton reflected that the State approves payments to cyber charters. Monson added that the District pays $9-10 million a year to cyber charters. Egea-Hinton voiced her concern about the costs. Wilkerson noted that she’d testified to the State Board of Education against a Ohio charter that wanted to do business in PA. Wilkerson reiterated her call for public protest to the State for its unfair funding structures.  Monson said his office has not completed the 5-Year plan but he expects a $250 million deficit for next year.  According to Monson, the City’s budget problems make it impossible for the City to give more financial aid to the District.  Federal help is uncertain (the national election had not yet been called). Monson said that timing is an important issue, meaning if we wait to make decisions (cutting budget spending), the less we will benefit from it.  Wilkerson responded that due to the District’s current structural deficit, the District should work on those structural problems now. Monson said we have to do both. He stated the combination of retrenchment and any federal money will not get us to year 5. He stated it’s impossible for this to not impact schools.

APPS has warned for the last several years that the Board’s increased spending on million dollar contracts to outside corporations is not sustainable considering the financial state. Over a year ago,  Hite promised that under his leadership the District would only spend on essentials. That turned out to be an empty promise. District spending has not been earmarked only for essentials, and the Action Items all year include large contracts for outside corporations for questionable services. Several teachers testified against the new IT system last month, but the Board again went with the wishes of the administration.  That is money that should be spent on students’ needs. The Board and the District must revise its priorities if we are to survive this crisis. 

Chief Operating Officer Reggie McNeil gave updates on Facilities and current capital projects, including the new Powel/SLAMS schools on Drexel-owned property. The District entered into an agreement for that project with Drexel years ago in which Drexel would cover the full cost, but at the last minute Drexel President John Fry came to the Board asking for the District to come up with $7 million.  Capital projects also include new classrooms at Mayfair and Meredith and five other major renovation projects. 

Egea-Hinton asked for an update on the new Mayfair campus on Ryan Avenue. McNeill responded, “ we’re further along than we thought”, seemed to satisfy Egea-Hinton and the other Board members. 

McColgan, who has consistently supported returning students to buildings,  raised the issue of how fans will be placed in schools: will they blow air into the classrooms or out of the classrooms?  McNeill did not explain how air circulation works or that fans can blow air either way depending on how they are positioned. 

Huang referred to a Philadelphia Inquirer article about the lack of ventilation in some schools. McNeil replied there are 7 schools whose ventilation systems are not repairable; those schools will need fans. Although more details were needed, as the District at that time planned to have some teachers return the following week, the Board did not ask for any. 

APPS Member Testifies Against Reopening Plan

APPS member Diane Payne spoke about Facilities readiness for K-2, the first group of students slated to return to buildings by the end of the month. She testified that the lack of information is reminiscent of last year’s Ben Franklin HS/SLA disaster that put students and teachers’ health at risk. That debacle prompted the District’s  Inspector General to issue a report detailing the Hite administration’s year-long endangering of students and staff. Payne reminded the Board that several speakers at the October 22nd Action meeting expressed their fears and their anger at the District’s failure to provide clear information about building safety. Payne said she was astounded that not one Board member responded to any of those speakers. No Board member asked Hite about seriously addressing the specific and understandable concerns for their children’s safety or staff safety. Payne ended by telling the Board, “The buck doesn’t stop with Hite, but with you.”