Board Puts Another Brick in the Wall

Ears on the Board of Education: January 27, 2022

by Diane Payne

With all District schools and offices open, the Board again held a meeting in which almost half of its members stayed home. They declined, without explanation, to attend in person, including Maria McColgan, a vocal supporter of the “open schools no matter what” faction. Throughout the major Omicron surge, the Board has ignored health and safety needs of students and staff in crowded and poorly ventilated buildings.  Board President Joyce Wilkerson and Board Members Mallory Fix Lopez, Reginald Streater, Lisa Salley and Leticia Egea-Hinton attended in person, along with the Student Representatives and Dr. Hite. Three Board members–Maria McColgan, Julia Danzy, and Cecelia Thompson– opted for the safety of a remote location. Board member Thompson has chosen not only to be remote but to be invisible.  When called upon she responds but there is no visible confirmation of her presence and engagement at any point in the meeting.  Why? 
The Board also refuses to identify a COVID protocol for admission to public meetings.  The auditorium’s official capacity is 240 persons; with distancing, at least 80 could be seated. The atrium could hold at least that many. Both are large spaces with high ceilings. There is no distancing in classrooms and most common areas of school buildings. The Board uses Covid cover to keep the public walled out. APPS sent a letter to the Board on January 25 asking them to identify and post the protocols on how the public can access 440 for these meetings.  The Board has yet to respond. The four APPS members who attended in person were asked by 440 security whether they were on the speakers list. We were, so we were admitted. Those not on the speakers list would be turned away.

No governing body, including the Board of Education, can bar admission to public meetings. The Board’s arbitrary and ever-changing admission procedures constitute an illegal barrier to public participation.  We call on the Board to develop Covid protocols that allow for public participation at all upcoming Board meetings. We call on all Board members to attend in person, as all staff and students have been since the beginning of the school year.  

The Board made short work of the first six agenda items– President’s Remarks, Superintendent Search Update, Fair Funding Lawsuit Update, Policy Committee Update, Parent and Community Advisory Update, and Superintendent Remarks–in just 24 minutes. Contrast that with the 2-hour data analysis of the Goals and Guardrails later in the 5-hour meeting.   

Fix Lopez asked Hite about the recently revised admissions policy to special-admit high schools, in particular the appeals process. The appeal deadline does not appear on a tab for “important dates”.  Why do people have to search through several tabs before finally spotting it under “resources”?  Fix Lopez also asked why the window for appeals began over winter break.  Hite replied that  the appeal process is “a work in progress” and that they got the information up as soon as they could–which just happened to be at the end of the break. Hite again invoked the “learning curve” justification for the way in which his administration mishandled the process. 

Salley questioned the administration’s  ongoing Covid response.  Hite replied that data from local and federal agencies have indicated that Covid is moving from the pandemic stage to the endemic stage and that the District monitors daily information from  Philadelphia Department of Health, Children’s Hospital (CHOP), PA Department of Public Education, and the Center for Disease Control (CDC).  Salley asked again, as she has every month since September, about the level of staff fatigue and hiring updates. Hite told her that the District would present a detailed account of staffing related efforts at the February Action Meeting.  He did say they have increased bus driving staff and that they are recruiting recent college graduates for district positions.  Hite also noted that an incentive program has been offered to PFT members who give early notice of retirement or resignation. 

Board Again Changes Agenda without Notice

Wilkerson brought up Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Uri Monson for an unscheduled presentation on the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). As we reminded the Board last October, Section 712.1 (e) (1) of the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act states: “Upon majority vote of the individuals present and voting during the conduct of a meeting, an agency may add a matter of agency business to the agenda. The reasons for the changes to the agenda shall be announced at the meeting before any vote is conducted to make changes to the agenda.” The Board violates the Sunshine Act on a regular basis, without consequence.    District stakeholders have an acute interest in how the Board will spend these funds. Failing to notify the public about Monson’s presentation is not just a violation of the law but a breach of the public trust. No one can sign up to speak on a subject that the Board gives no notice of. 

Monson testified (remotely) about the Covid relief funds that the District will receive in 2021 and 2022.  His PowerPoint  gave only general information about how the Hite administration proposes to spend the ARPA funds. No link was available during the meeting, and it’s still not available. Why didn’t the Board put this on the agenda prior to the meeting? Why is the PowerPoint not available to the public? Does the Board not want the public to know exactly how this money will be spent?  Noticeably missing from Monson’s presentation were actual dollar amounts. (The District’s website states that the District will receive $1.1 billion in ARPA funds.) 

Monson responded to a question from Fix Lopez  by stating that  “we’re focusing on the activity not the dollars.”  Is Monson the Chief Financial Officer or the Chief Academic Officer? The Board should not have accepted this non-answer from Monson. The Board is the governing body of the District–they decide how money should be spent. The CFO’s job is to tell the Board and the public where money is coming from and how the District is spending it. 

(To watch Monson’s presentation on the video, forward to 4 hours/9 minutes on the time-stamp).

[For all Board member questions and Hite responses and to view the entire meeting go to the BOE webpage.  To view the written testimony submitted for this meeting go to the Meeting Materials page and access the agenda for this meeting.  

Board Continues Speaker Suppression

Seven student speakers, one elected official, and thirty adults were allowed to speak this month. Four members of APPS testified in person; one member sent in written testimony.  [To access the testimony of APPS and other members of the defenders of public education you can visit the APPS website.]  This meeting marks one full year of speaker suppression.  In January of 2021, this Board changed the speaker  policy without any public notice, public discussion, or public explanation. The three minutes of speaking time was reduced to two, and speakers were capped at only 30, no matter how many official items are on the agenda.  Defenders of public education know that the Board doth protest too much with their repeated claims of public engagement and transparency. This governing body operates behind a wall of its own making, increasingly demonstrating the need for a fully elected school board.  No one knows how many people who tried to speak at this meeting were denied.  APPS co-founder Lisa Haver testified about the four emails APPS sent to the Board in the ten days prior to the meeting and the Board’s failure to respond to even one of them. In one letter,  APPS asked why the District had supplied the new charter applicants with the Charter Schools Office evaluations before the hearings on January 24 and January 24 but had not posted them publicly.  Another APPS email asked why the Board intended to vote on an almost completely revised Policy 911 without the required Board review. A third email asked for the Board’s official capacity for the auditorium and atrium for this action meeting. Haver testified that as of that morning, the Board had replied to none of them. In addition, Haver reported that the Board had again violated the PA Sunshine Act by failing to acknowledge a formal notice of objection sent via email and twitter to the Board during the new charter application hearings on January 25. APPS objected to the hearing examiner’s allowing Aspira representatives who had testified at the morning hearing on Aspira Bilingual Tech to decline to answer questions at the afternoon hearing on Aspira de Hostos Prep.  Aspira submitted two separate and distinct applications for two separate schools.  All parties, including members of the public whose tax dollars pay for these schools, have the right to hear every question asked and answered independently.  These are legal public hearings. Haver testified that the Board violated the law by refusing to acknowledge the APPS objection. 

About 10 minutes later, without asking for recognition or calling for a point of order, Streater interrupted to make a “correction” to the public testimony about the Board’s failure to respond to correspondence.  Haver rose and said that if Streater was referring to her testimony, she wanted to come up to the mic and respond (only those on a mic can be heard by those viewing remotely).  Wilkerson moved to the next speaker without comment.  The episode placed another brick into the Board’s wall

The  Board put yet another brick in their wall by failing to respond to any of the testimony, given both in person and remotely, about the District’s inadequate Covid response. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, Our City Our Schools, and Councilmembers Kendra Brooks  have all expressed similar concerns during the Omicron spike.  Not one Board member felt compelled to address these concerns. 

Goals and Guardrails, Lingo and Jargon 

For almost two hours, the Board analyzed Guardrail 4, Racist Practices.  This excruciating monthly trek into data is purported to yield better practices but so far has resulted in just more tables, charts, and lingo. Isn’t the real proof in the lived reality of students and staff–not simply test scores and data? The two indicators of progress analyzed by the Board were 1) the percentage of African-American or Hispanic/Latinx 8th-graders qualified to attend criteria-based high schools,  and 2) the percentage of suspensions received by Black/African American students.  A lot of time was spent on special-admit admissions as an indicator. But many more indicators lie in how the district funds and resources neighborhood schools. Isn’t the lack of resources in those schools a bigger indicator of a lack of equity?  The best way to address racist practices is not to quantify it and put it into a data box–it is to talk to educators, students and teachers about what the problems are and how they would fix them.

Board Adopts “Gag Order” Employee Policy

The Board approved spending a total of $164 million, not including the cost of the 5-year renewal of Harambee charter.  Item 9, which passed unanimously and without deliberation, accounted for $145 million. 

Item 1, Adoption of Proposed Board Policies: All twelve revisions and three eliminations passed unanimously, with the exception of Policy 138 on bilingual education which was tabled. The Board did not deliberate at all on Policy 911, News Media Relations, which generated much controversy when first introduced last month, with Fix Lopez calling it  a “gag order”.  

Items 4 through 7: Passed unanimously.

Item 2, Contract with Scantron for Survey Printing, Mailing, and Processing ($150,000):  Passed unanimously. Cecelia Thompson asked why the District cannot provide this copying and scantron service internally.  Chief of Evaluation, Research, and Accountability Tonya Wolford responded (remotely), saying that the District’s own department did not have the capacity to print all of the surveys needed. Wolford stated that the District could look into the cost of securing the equipment and making this an in-house product; she agreed to research the cost. Those costs should be presented at the next public meeting, not just sent to the Board members. 

Item 20, Contract with Big Picture for Vaux Big Picture High School ($21,000,000): Passed unanimously.  Several speakers including the school’s Assistant Principal testified in favor of passage. Fix Lopez asked what outcomes we should expect from this outsourcing contract.  She didn’t cite current data on the District website that shows Big Picture has not in fact achieved its promised outcomes in the years it has operated Vaux. One example: SPR Achievement is currently 1%. The District closed Vaux in 2013 citing under-enrollment, then opened it a couple of years later under corporate partnership. Was there an influx of young people into the neighborhood? How much would the District save by operating the school itself, as it did for decades, and cutting out the corporate middle man? 

Action Item 22, William L Sayer Pool Project ($10,000,000):  Defeated 7-1, Thompson dissenting.  Wilkerson argued that the district has too many infrastructure needs and that although this project is deserving, it is “not the right time”. Several Board members concurred.  Hite responded that there is only one functional pool in the District and that is in the Northeast.  (Actually the District is paying for the pool at Mastery Pickett).  Hite reminded the Board that the Sayre pool would be available to the West Philadelphia community as it has in the past. Councilmember Jamie Gauthier testified in favor of funding the pool as did two other speakers.  Some Board members asked Hite to investigate the possibility of having the City provide some of the funding on this project.

Item 24:  Renewal for Harambee Science and Technology Charter:  Passed unanimously. 
The Board renewed Harambee Charter for another five years despite Harambee’s failing to meet academic, organizational, and financial standards. The Board gave no presentation at this or any previous meeting about this renewal. The Board did not disclose the projected costs of the 5-year renewal. The Board again violated the Sunshine Act by voting on the agreement released to Harambee officials but not to the public, thus voting in secret. 

Item 25, Contract with Michael Ambriz for Recruitment Oversight and Support ($95,000): Passed 5-3, with Fix Lopez, Salley, and Thompson dissenting. 

Thompson asked why no CV (Curriculum Vitae) or resume was included in the Item’s content and said the Board was asked to vote “blindly”. Thompson did an online search of Ambriz and found nothing. Chief Talent Officer Larissa Shambaugh responded (remotely)  that due to resignations, the department now had over ten vacancies, and the administration found itself without leadership on main projects.  When defending the choice of Michael Ambriz, Shambaugh noted his experience with Teach For America (TFA) and Uncommon Schools (US).  Actually, that  reinforces Thompson’s concerns as TFA and US, while large corporate entities, actually turn out people with little education experience. 

Action Item 26, Contract with Exude Human Capital Consulting, LLC ($36,000): Passed 6-2, Salley and Thompson dissenting, with objections similar to those raised about Item 26. 

Items 3, 8-19, 21, 23 (Consent Agenda): Passed.  Fix Lopez and Salley abstained from Items 13 and 23 due to possible conflicts. All others passed unanimously. 

The meeting adjourned at 9:55 PM, almost six hours after it began.