Board Proposes Another Way to Silence District Educators

Policy Committee Report:  November 4, 2021

by Lisa Haver

About 4 hours before the Policy Committee  convened, APPS sounded the alarm on twitter: “New @PHLschoolboard Policy 911: “Staff members shall not give school information or interviews requested by news media representatives without prior approval of the Office of Communications.” We will ask whether that applies to all #PhlEd staff as that is clearly unconstitutional.  

District employees and union members responded, tagging members of the Board. Only one Board Member, Mallory Fix Lopez, echoed that alarm at the meeting, rightly calling the policy a “gag order”. 

Lisa Haver, the only public speaker who addressed Policy 911, told the Board that teachers and staff “do not surrender their Constitutional rights when they become employees of the School District of Philadelphia.” 

Fix Lopez asked District Chief of Staff Alicia Prince whether “staff members” in Policy 911 referred to all employees of the District. APPS members in attendance were shocked to hear Prince affirm that, yes, the policy did apply to all District employees.  Communications Director Monica Lewis told the Board that the Policy was written to safeguard the District’s “image” and to make sure that the District was always presented “in the best way possible”. 

Fix Lopez asked whether a high school football coach, being interviewed after a game, would have to get approval from 440 before talking to a reporter. Lewis did not rule that out. Of course, hypothetical scenarios do not have to be invoked. The policy is obviously designed to silence union members who speak out on asbestos and other toxins in buildings, disruptive bell schedules, mountains of trash in schoolyards, and failure of administration to deliver food to elementary schools. 

Why did only one Board member raise red flags about a policy that would silence teachers and staff under the threat of disciplinary action?   Committee Chair Maria McColgan defended the policy, saying that it was standard operating procedure at businesses and universities.  Reginald Streater’s opinion “as an attorney”, that employees do not have an “unfettered” right to speak on District issues, shed no light on the issue.  Reporters understand that teachers and staff talking about issues in their schools and communities do not speak on behalf of the administration.

Fix Lopez told the Board that she would be submitting a revised policy for consideration at the next Policy Committee meeting.  That should have been next February, as this committee has been meeting quarterly, but at the end of the meeting McColgan announced, with no explanation, that  the next meeting  would be April 2022. When Haver asked her why, after the meeting adjourned, McColgan told Haver that “regrettably” the Committee will now be meeting only twice a year. True to form, the Board never announced this change in scheduling nor did they take a public vote on it.  

APPS will continue to demand that the Board not adopt yet another policy designed to silence educators who speak out on behalf of their students. 

Why Is the Board Blocking Student Voter Registration?

After the agenda items were considered, Fix Lopez raised the issue of passing a policy for registering high school students to vote.  APPS members Ilene Poses and Coleman Poses again urged the Board to enact this policy. Advocates including Central teacher  and Philly Youth Vote organizer Tom Quinn, who testified at this meeting,  brought this issue to the Board over two years ago. In 2018, then-Pennsylvania Republican Party Chair Val DiGiorgio falsely accused Quinn of engaging in “liberal indoctrination” of his students and distributing partisan campaign flyers.  DiGiorgio later resigned in disgrace after news stories told of his “sexting” a woman who had expressed interest in running for Philadelphia City Council.  DiGiorgio is the brother of Board Member and Policy Committee Chair Maria McColgan. 

Despite Board Members including Fix Lopez and Angela McIver supporting it, the policy has never been placed on the agenda for a final vote. Why? Prince told the Board about individual schools having “voter champions”, but as Fix Lopez pointed out, having an official Board policy would mean that voter registration could be conducted at all District high schools, not just the ones where principals allowed it.  Board President Wilkerson, sounding like a small-government Republican, questioned the need for this  policy, wondering whether that would lead to policies on too many issues. Why does the Board have a problem with having Philadelphia’s students become registered voters?

Charter CEO Complains About Enrollment Policy

Scott Gordon, CEO of Mastery Charters, claimed in his testimony that the District’s enrollment policies were unfair to Renaissance charter high schools.   Gordon, who is paid over $200,000 annually to oversee 14 charter schools, made a number of untrue statements. He claimed that Mastery has improved the schools it took control of, although District data has consistently shown the opposite.  At a meeting earlier this year, in fact, Wilkerson pointed out that several of the Mastery schools in this year’s renewal cohort had failed to meet basic standards. Gordon also stated that Mastery charters were restricted to enrolling students in the schools’ catchment areas, citing Mastery Gratz in particular. District data shows that in the 2020-21 school year, only 25% of Gratz’s students live in the catchment area.  Renaissance charter operators promised to educate the children in the catchment areas of the schools they took control of. Renaissance schools have proven to be an expensive and devastating failure for the District. 

The Board should begin the process of returning these District schools to the community.