Board of Education: Tear Down this Wall!

Ears on the Board of Education: September 22, 2022

by Diane Payne

The public is restricted to sitting behind rows of tables set up for Assistant Superintendents and Department heads from the administration building. This is what the attending public sees .

“I can’t believe what you say because I see what you do.”  James Baldwin

Never has a quote been more fitting than with the Philadelphia Board of Education and its new administration. Superintendent Tony Watlington, Sr. comes out of the gate reinstituting the odious practice of leveling–now rebranded as “Enrollment-Driven Resource Review”. Classes that have already established their routines and built relationships over the past month will be turned upside down. The district will again target classrooms that have not reached maximum enrollment allowed under the PFT contract, as if that were a problem to be corrected instead of a more nurturing learning environment.   Classes will be collapsed and students will be dispersed to start all over with another teacher and new group of students. Why does the district do this?  To save money.  Not one board member responded to any of the students or parents who testified against it, nor did they raise it at any time during the 5 ½ hour meeting.  The maximum number of students in grades K-3 is 30; in grades 4 through 12 it is 33. Students in the more affluent districts around Philadelphia, where class size is nowhere near that of Philadelphia, don’t have to endure the disruption of leveling. 

Two new student board representatives were introduced and sworn in.  Their information was not included on the official agenda but thanks to the Inquirer we know they are Sophie Roach, a senior at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts, and Love Speech a senior at Kensington Creative and Performing Arts High School.  Welcome to both student representatives and best wishes for a productive school year.  

More Public Disengagement
Members of the public who attended in person again found themselves relegated to seating far away from the board members. Long tables covered with blue cloths formed an extended barrier across the auditorium, making it even more difficult for people to see and hear the board. 

Eight of the nine board members were present in the auditorium; Cecelia Thompson attended remotely as she does at every meeting. Thompson has been seen at several district and public events in recent months, but she has given no explanation for staying home during Board meetings. This creates a number of problems. For instance, remote viewers see one half of the screen with eight board members shot from a distance,  and the other half with only Thompson. In addition, the board provided no meeting materials for the public. Several people questioned the staff; some raised the issue on social media. The agenda with the official items was never made available.  They were told something about a problem with a printer. Is there only one printer at 440?  The board has a legal obligation to make sure that the public can see the agenda and follow the official proceedings during the meeting.

President Joyce Wilkerson gave a brief update of the conditions at the former Universal Bluford and Daroff Charter Schools, which Universal has walked away from without explanation.  Businessman Kenny Gamble’s Universal Education Companies, with the approval of the School Reform Commission, carried out the hostile takeover of these schools over a decade ago as they became part of the failed Renaissance Schools initiative.  APPS members have attended the non-renewal hearings of these two schools and have documented Universal’s failure to meet basic standards.  

Renaissance schools are district schools that were handed over to charter operators who promised they could make significant improvements in student outcomes.  But when they didn’t, the SRC, and now the Board, continued to renew them.  While both school communities at Daroff and Bluford were kept in the dark, a disagreement between the schools’ boards and Universal management came to a head, and Universal ceded control. Parents told the Inquirer that Universal “stonewalled” them when they went to them with questions. The Board has accepted no responsibility for the chaos, during which parents were not even sure their children would have a school to go to, nor has the Board demanded that Universal representatives give a public accounting for their actions.  Universal Education Companies and its affiliates have collected hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars every year that they controlled these schools. 

As she does every month, Wilkerson called on Thompson to give a report, not on the agenda, of the Parent and Community Advisory Council.  Her report contains little of substance, but the board touts this committee, whose meetings are not public and not on the district calendar, as community engagement. 

Board Can and Should Provide A Living Wage to Every Employee
Superintendent Watlington had little to say in his official remarks.   After  a brief summary reiterating the goals of his listening sessions, he called on Chief Operating Officer Reggie McNeil for updates on beginning of the year logistics. Chief Talent Officer Larisa Shambaugh gave staffing updates, and Chief of Schools Evelyn Nunez reported on school readiness information.  

McNeil reported that school buildings were ready and clean for the start of the school year.  The big challenge remains transportation, getting the on-time bus arrivals rate to improve from its current rate of 71%. Nunez reported the success of all students having rosters in hand on the first day of school. No one remarked on the disconnect of giving students rosters that become null and void when leveling is imposed.   Shambaugh noted that the new 32BJ contract provides for wage increases for all members.  She shared a slide with the fill rate for all district positions.  The positions under 90% fill rate were for nurses, bus drivers, building engineers, general cleaners, food service staff, special ed assistants, and student climate staff. 

Thompson raised one of the more interesting questions of the night.  She asked if it was correct that special ed assistants make a maximum of $22,000 per year.  Shambaugh confirmed that and noted that this amount represents a salary increase negotiated in the new contract, up from $15,000.  Thompson, who has been an advocate for students with special needs and their families, replied that these workers have a huge responsibility and no easy task in the work they do. She asked Shambaugh if even this new salary provided a living wage for these district paraprofessionals. Did Thompson think that a 440 administrative chief decided the salaries of district employees?

Wilkerson quickly interjected that of course the district wants to pay workers  living wage, but that the conversation had to take place with the unions representing the workers, in this case the PFT.  Wilkerson seemed to be saying that if not for the unions, the district could be giving all its employees a living wage. It is not possible that Wilkerson, with her experience in government, actually believes this. Are board members really unaware of how contract negotiations work–that every proposal for higher salary, improved health benefits, better working conditions–is fought tooth and nail by the district? 

In response, PFT president Jerry Jordan later offered on social media to reopen negotiations for the district’s paraprofessionals. No one should hold their breath on this one.  

Fix Lopez questioned the availability and scheduling of after-school activities.  She noted that it is hard for parents to plan when they don’t know what may be available and that demand may be greater than available slots.  Nunez responded that the district focuses these services on “off track” schools and that even after successfully finding a provider for an after-school activity, staffing remains a challenge.   

Not one board member asked about leveling during the Q and A session. 

(For all Board member questions and to view the entire meeting visit the Board website )

Students and Parents Demand Healthy Buildings
Several speakers testified about ongoing ventilation issues in school buildings.  Poor air quality brings with it a plethora of health issues as well as concerns about the spread of airborne illnesses including Covid.  Parent advocate Lizzie Rothwell has been leading the charge to demand schools are equipped with air quality mitigations and again presented her demands to the Board. She was met with silence. Philly DSA has organized parents and community members to construct Corsi-Rosenthal boxes, a DIY effort to improve air quality in classrooms. 

Three members of APPS spoke at the meeting; one sent in written testimony.  Lisa Haver called the Board to task for their role in enabling Universal to withhold information from the Bluford and Daroff school communities. Lynda Rubin gave kudos to the Martin Luther King High School faculty for having an all African-American team of 9th grade teachers.  Ilene Poses called out the district for wasteful contracts, specifically noting the $450,000 Joseph and Associates contract to help with Watlington’s transition.  Joseph and Associates is a Tennessee company led by a CEO with a questionable past.  Diane Payne sent in testimony calling out the harmful reinstitution of leveling. District teacher Kristin Luebbert gave “Part 3” of her testimony on teacher retention and principals who “demonize and target teachers”, decrying the practice of having school police officers deliver official communication to teachers during class time. 

One elementary student asked the District to consider the harm of leveling, telling the Board that she is tired of losing her teacher every year.   No Board Member responded to any of these concerns.  

APPS testimony can be viewed on the APPS website

Goals and Guardrails
The Goals and Guardrails data analysis lasted two hours, from 6:46 to 8:58 PM. 

Career Goal 4: The percentage of students who are proficient on all three state high school assessments–the Keystone Algebra, Literature, and Biology tests– by the end of their 11th grade year will grow from 26.1% in August 2019 to 52.0% by August 2026.

College & Career Goal 5: The percentage of students who are proficient on all three state high school assessments (Algebra, Literature, and Biology) by the end of their 11th grade year will grow from 26.1% in August 2019 to 52.0% by August 2026. The percentage of Career and Technical Education (CTE) students who pass an industry standards-based competency assessment by the end of their 12th grade year will grow from 54.5% in August 2019 to 80.0% in August 2026.

 In a nutshell, students are “off-track” for both goals.  Reasons for off-track include COVID, decrease in the number of students taking the fall tests, and attendance problems.  Not mentioned at any point during Goals and Guardrails  was the Enrollment-Driven Resource Review (ERR) formerly known as leveling.  ERR is a good acronym for this because ERR is an ERROR.  Chaos and disruption has a major impact on student outcomes.  Leveling causes chaos and disruption.  This is hypocrisy in action.

Board Should Vote Before Two-Hour Data Analysis Session                                
APPS has called on the Board, in letters and in testimony, to vote on official items before the 2-hour long Goals and Guardrails (G&G). Our analysis of the topics of both students and adult speakers over the past year shows that only one speaker out of approximately 250 addressed the G & G. The rest testified on action items and other crucial issues. The public cares about how the Board votes and how they spend money; they care about how those decisions affect students and families.  Placing the voting on Agenda Items after the G&G, which usually means after 9 PM,  is disrespectful to the parents, students, educators and community members who care enough to bring their issues to the public.

Items 2 and 27: Withdrawn before the meeting. 

Items 1,3, 4:  Passed unanimously.  Board member Thompson asked about the high number of resignations. Shambaugh responded that in a district this size there are always large numbers of resignations.  They do track to see if there are any trends and they will report if there are worrisome upward trends in resignations.

Items 5,6:  Passed unanimously. Thompson asked how the district knows this is the best contractor for Item 5.  Shambaugh replied that they vetted three providers and this one is covered by the District’s medical plan and had good statistics with matching providers with patients and patients staying with that match.  They asked for a 1-year contract so that the administration can review and determine whether this vendor is working well.  Board member Salley asked how we know the vendor for Item 6 is worthwhile.  Shambaugh stated because of  increased hits  on the website and increased applications.

Item 16:  Passed unanimously. Thompson asked why we approved a contract with Rico last month and now again this month.  CFO Uri Monson told her that this month’s item approves the purchase of specialty printers and that it would cost less than outsourcing that type of printing. 

Items 19 and 20:  Passed unanimously. Regarding Item 19, Thompson asked if the district could recruit current or past family or student members to the OAC advisory Board which Chief Academic Officer Savoy-Brooks said they were working on.  She said there is no minimum or maximum number of Board members required by the state.

Item 22:  Passed unanimously.  Thompson expressed concerns about spending $250,000 to rent space at the Convention Center for professional development.  She asked if the PD could be given on seven consecutive Saturdays; Shambaugh informed her that the district must honor collective bargaining agreements and cannot make people  work on Saturdays.

Items 7-15, 17,18, 21, 23-26:  Passed unanimously. Thompson asked about the change order in Item 11, part of which covers “design error”.  She does not want the district to pay the vendor for their own error. 

The Board adjourned its regular meeting and convened the Intermediate Unit meeting.  The one agenda item for a $325,000 contrast which passed unanimously. Thompson asked that in the future the board conduct meaningful discussions on I U items. 

The Board passed all items unanimously, spending a total of $40,084,231.

The meeting adjourned at 9:34 PM, 5 ½ hours after it began.