Board Silences Community Voices

Ears on the Board of Education:  August 19, 2021

by Lisa Haver and Lynda Rubin

For the first time in APPS’ 9-year history, not one of our members was permitted to attend or to testify at a District Action Meeting. Lisa Haver signed up to speak on Action Item 44, YouthBuild Charter Renewal; Lynda Rubin  to speak on Action Item 2, an $800,000 grant over ten years from the University of Pennsylvania for a kindergarten teacher at Penn Alexander School. Both were notified that they would not be permitted to speak; thus, the Board deliberately blocked public testimony before voting on those action items, another blatant violation of the state’s Sunshine Act. Of course, there is no way to know how many other parents, students, educators and community members were not allowed to speak.  When Board President Joyce Wilkerson attempted to justify the Board’s dismantling of its speaker policy last year, she contended that those policies were preventing a variety of voices from being heard. At every meeting, General Counsel Lynn Rauch reads a statement that the Board wants to “prioritize new voices”. But the Board’s actions belie these claims. The Board no longer limits speakers on a given topic, pro or con; it is strictly first-come, first served. At this meeting, 10 adult speakers, ⅓ of those permitted to speak, addressed one topic–school reopenings. Are we to believe that no parent wanted to address the new bell schedule, which generated several news stories, or the amended 2021-22 calendar that moves professional development half-days from Fridays to Wednesdays? The Board allowed testimony on only six of the forty-eight Action Items. That means fewer perspectives heard on fewer issues. The Board crossed the line at this meeting, however, not just allowing corporate lobbyists and executives to take the limited speaker slots, but actually recruiting them. 

The Board could no longer sustain the optics of holding remote meetings while sending students and staff into school buildings at full capacity. They held a “hybrid” meeting at which only Board members, District staff and registered speakers would attend in person; there were about 25 people in a room that holds almost 300. The Board has used the COVID crisis to shield itself from District stakeholders who have criticized not just their speaker suppression but their disregard for the needs of students and families. Their solution: keep those voices silent by keeping them off the speaker list and out of the room.

Ring the Bell  

Board members Wilkerson, Egea-Hinton, McColgan, Fix Lopez, Streater, Danzy, Salley attended in person; Thompson participated via Zoom, as did Student Board Reps Rebecca Allen and Armando Ortez. Danzy left during the Action Item voting. (McIver’s seat has not been filled by Mayor Kenney.) Technical difficulties plagued the 6 ½-hour meeting, with Board members interrupting throughout because they couldn’t hear those sitting just a few feet away. This was the last Board Action Meeting before the start of in-person school instruction at which parents could raise their questions and concerns in a public forum. Despite the range of parents’ questions regarding updates on the schools’ reopening, Dr. Hite only gave some quick details of some of the main procedures for students, staff and buildings.  He advised people to go to the Ring the Bell – The School District of Philadelphia webpage. This site is a multi-paged, “click here, click there” format, but it doesn’t answer parents’ individual questions. (See below for details on next week’s “Town Halls”.)  Hite did say that masks are required for all students and staff, and that buildings will have touchless hydration stations. He stated that there will be mandated weekly staff testing but gave no specifics. Hite told the Board that students will be tested only if symptomatic–a change from previous District announcements. He did “encourage” all adults to be vaccinated. (The Board will hold a special meeting next week to vote on that one issue–mandating all staff to be vaccinated.) Hite’s answers to Board members evoked some frustration, indicating that he isn’t up to speed on all details of his reopening plan, including technological capacities in elementary and high schools. In addition, many Board questions revealed that they have not been fully briefed on this subject.  This apparent breakdown of communications ten days before the beginning of the school year raises alarms that the first few weeks of school will be a repeat of recent years.

Corporate Interests Over Community Concerns

After imposing an arbitrary cap of 30 adult and 15 student speakers and limiting them to 2 minutes each, the Board has found new ways to silence District stakeholders. Corporate representatives and spokespersons from PlayWorks, Resinnova/EIP and Active Pure, some who live in other states, along with the developer of the 4101 Market Street property, were permitted to lobby for District contracts and other economic considerations during Public Speakers’ time. Michael Dorsey, speaking about air quality, told the Board that District Communications Director Monica lewis had “reached out” to him. Resinnova representative John LaRochelle, based in New Hampshire, referred to “Mayfield Elementary” when speaking about Mayfair. The LinkedIn page of Kenneth Elovitz, identified by the Board as a “Community Member”, says that he lives in Foxboro, Massachusetts. The District has a bidding process during which businesses can present their proposals and make their sales pitches. The board should not be actively filling speaker slots meant for students, parents, educators and community members with advertorials from corporate officials and their lobbyists.

City Officials Lobby for KOZ Extensions

Just before Wilkerson called for the vote on Action Item 4, she announced that the Director of the City’s Commerce Department was “available to take questions” on the proposed KOZ extensions for properties in Bridesburg and West Philadelphia. Rather than placing a full presentation on the agenda so that the Board and the community could see the details of the plan, Wilkerson called up several City officials whom she had waiting in the wings. Commerce Director Michael Rasheed, “representing Mayor Kenney”, urged the Board to pass the KOZ extensions on the two properties. A 30-minute Q and A session ensued, with several more City officials weighing in. Because their names were not on the agenda or on the screen, and Rasheed called them by both first and last names, it was often not possible to know who was speaking. Board questions indicated that they had not been briefed on this issue or even sent basic information on the costs versus benefits to the District and the community. We don’t question the potential benefits of the KOZs,  we question how Wilkerson conducts official business, making the Mayor’s priorities the Board’s and taking unlimited time to make sure the City officials plead the Mayor’s case (as she did last year with the Hilco re-vote). 

 KOZs involve a lot of public funding over many years, and businesses stand to gain from the abatements   granted. The Item would provide for “exemptions, abatements, credits and deductions” for the developers of both properties. The issue should be explained with full details of the programs involved and the proposed costs of each–not relegated to a last-minute Q and A session with no visuals. 

A number of Board members, including Salley, Streater, and Egea-Hinton,  raised concerns about diversity and asked for assurances about internships and employment opportunities for students. Fix Lopez and Thompson raised concerns about diversity and accountability; they asked for specifics about how the City will be monitoring job opportunities for students.  Thompson told them that she lives near the West Philadelphia property and so far has seen no African-American construction workers.  Answers from the City officials remained vague. In the end, Fix Lopez and Thompson voted No on the Market Street KOZ and Yes on Beach Street.

Votes on Action Items

Items pulled from Consent Agenda for Individual Votes

Item 1, Acceptance of Grant from Drexel to Promise Academies: McMichael, Powel, Martha Washington, to share 6 Teachers (3 Math Leads and 3 Literacy Leads) $919,000;  Passed 8-0

Item 2, Acceptance of Grant and Renewal of Agreement with U of P — $723,940 (actual cost) for Penn Alexander 1 kindergarten teacher a year for 10 years; passed 7-0, Fix-Lopez abstained.                                

Item 3, Amendment to Extend School Violence Prevention Program from US Dept of Justice PBIS, Police Training, Technology  (with 1 year renewal); Passed 8-0

Item 4, Authorization of Keystone Opportunity Zone at two sites. Board voted to approve Thompson’s move to divide the Item into two, one for each property.  Item 4A, KOZ for 4101 Market Street, Passed 6-2, with Fix Lopez & Thompson dissenting. Item 4B, for 1325 Beech Street, Passed 8-0. 

Item 5, Location Change Amendment for Philadelphia Electrical & Technology Charter to 1709 Benjamin Franklin Parkway;  Passed 8-0. (There was no presentation or deliberation on the amendment at this or any previous meeting.)

Item 6, Contract with Midwestern Intermediate Unit, Curricular Evaluation Support for New Charter Applications, $60,000; Passed 8-0

Item 17, License and Right of Entry Agreement with the Q Group Builders, Inc. for Exterior Playground Improvements for Morrison,  Cayuga, John Marshall and Thurgood Marshall Schools; Funded by Lindy Foundation (Drexel University); Passed 6-1,  Fix Lopez dissented. 

Item 29, American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Health and Safety Plan;  Passed 7-0 (Julia Danzy left the meeting; she was not present for most of the votes.)

Item 30, Amendment of Contract and Acceptance of In-Kind Services from Playworks Education for District-wide Recess Supports to Schools in Gun-violence-affected communities for  $400,000 (Orig. contract 10/30/21- 6/30/22,  $700,000); New End Date 6/30/23  Total compensation $1,300,000; Passed 7-0.

Item 39,  Adoption of Academic Calendar SY21-22 (as Amended). After deliberation,  Fix Lopez, Thompson, and McColgan dissented.  Failed,  4-3.  (5 votes, a majority of the Board, are required for passage).      

Item 44,  Renewal of YouthBuild Philadelphia Charter,  Passed 7-0. Board violated the Sunshine Act by not providing full content of the renewal contract. 

Consent Agenda (all remaining Items),  Passed 7-0  Item 38 Passed 6-0, 1 abstention (Egea-Hinton abstained on Item 38). Danzy left before Consent Agenda items were voted on.

Intermediate Unit Votes

  1. Contract with STAR Autism Support,Inc., Professional Development for teachers of Autistic students Grades 6-12, Philadelphia Secondary Autism Project ($247,000) Passed 7-0. 
  2. Contract with Trustees U of P – Philly AIMS Comprehensive Professional Development for Teachers of Autistic students Gr K-5; Passed 5-0, Fix Lopez abstained. 
  3. Contract with Specialized Education Services, Inc. (SESI) IU 26 Alternative Special Education Program students with disabilities and severe emotional disturbance as an alternative to placing students with severe disabilities in private schools outside of Philadelphia that often require lengthy transportation and have more restrictive environments (($4,400,000 ); Passed 6-0. 

The meeting adjourned at 10:28, 6 ½ hours after convening.

Special Board Meeting (Remote):  Tuesday, August 24 at 5 PM. Agenda: Item on mandatory vaccination of District staff. 

September Action Meeting: Thursday, September 23 at 4 PM (no indication of whether in-person, hybrid, or remote). Town Halls (non-interactive):  Wednesday, August 25 from 5-6 PM and Thursday, August 25, 5-6 PM.