by Diane Payne and Lisa Haver
The Board of Education held two meetings on the afternoon of October 7: one to consider a bond issuance of approximately $400 million and the other to allow members of the public to address their concerns about the District.
The Board followed the letter of the law by posting a small notice about this special meeting in the classified section of the Philadelphia Inquirer. They also entered the time of the meeting, with no details, in their online calendar. The Board held this meeting at 1 PM, knowing that most stakeholders could not attend, with teachers and students in school and most parents at work. When the Board finally posted the Action Item, just days before the meeting, it gave nothing but the title–not even the amount. The legal notice had more information than the agenda posted online and in the copy distributed at the meeting. The Board clearly wanted to vote on this $375 bond issue after a minimum of public disclosure.
President Wilkerson, Vice-President Egea-Hinton, and Board Members Fix Lopez and Thompson attended in person; McColgan, Streater, Salley and Danzy attended virtually.
Bonds are issued to borrow money for various purposes, in this case for capital improvements. They must be spent on those projects within a two-year window, but the District pays interest and principal on them for 25 years. Chief Financial Officer Uri Munson’s PowerPoint presentation (posted on the District website the day after the meeting but not available to the public prior to or during the meeting) highlighted the positive financial outcomes the District has achieved in the last five years. These included an increased Moody Analytics rating, decreased interest percentage, and keeping debt at no more than 10% annually to insure the District will remain in a solid position to manage it.
It came as no surprise that there were only four registered speakers, two of whom did not appear when called. APPS co-founder Lisa Haver attended in person, APPS member Diane Payne remotely. In their testimony, both Haver and Payne called out the Board for its lack of community engagement in this process. Haver disputed Wilkerson’s opening statements about proper notification of the public, first by pointing out that “posting on the District website” on October 1 was actually an entry in the Board calendar with no information about the purpose of the meeting. Haver said that she was only able to ask any kind of informed question because APPS members monitor the legal notices in the Inquirer, and that the legal notice had more information than what was on the website or in the Action Item posted online and distributed at the meeting–which contained the title and nothing more, not even the amount of the bonds. Wilkerson asked Monson to answer some of Haver’s questions while she remained at the microphone.
Monson took offense at both Haver and Payne’s criticism. He defended the information provided by the Board, stating that Bond issuances are standard accounting practices for any large agency. Monson said that today’s action is part of the 5-year plan approved in May that is available on the District website. Haver asked if the Board expected the public to know where to look for this information and to scroll back through six months of Board items to find it. Monson went so far as to characterize the remarks of the APPS members as “disingenuous” and their assertions that the Board did not provide sufficient information as “insidious”. Several members of the Board then thanked Monson for his efforts. The Board passed the Item unanimously.
A Board that routinely claims to be transparent should have provided the full Item with a clear explanation of this complicated financial transaction, with relevant links to hard-to-find website pages. They should have scheduled the meeting for maximum public participation.
Is a public meeting simply for the District and the Board to conduct their business with the public seen as a necessary aggravant? Or is it to fully engage the public in meaningful participation that results in Board recognition of public needs and public recognition of Board needs?
Most egregiously, none of the Board members raised any objection to the fact that they were, in effect, taking a secret vote. Prior to their vote, they had been given the complete Item, with a 60-page attachment detailing the exact amount of the bonds, the names of the bond counsel and financial agent the District was contracting with, the amount of annual debt service the District would be paying until 2047, exactly which capital improvements and at which schools the bonds would be paying for, and other relevant facts,. The Board did not post the full Item until the day after they voted. That is a clear violation of the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act.
The Board has given the public one more reason not to trust them.
There was no formal agenda for the 4 PM meeting. Four of the twelve adult registered speakers testified in person: Lisa Haver; two teachers and members of the Racial Justice Organizing Committee, Kristin Luebbert and Dana Carter; and parent Stephanie King. Haver reminded the Board that as public servants in a democracy, their power derives from the people, not just from the one person who appoints them. If they are making official decisions about the future of our children while silencing the public, that is an abuse of power. Carter, before being cut off at exactly two minutes, testified about the racial disparities evidenced in benchmark scores. “Literacy concerns in high school begin in elementary school,” Carter told the Board. One of her suggestions: “Invest in quality professional development to give teachers support in teaching foundational reading and math skills instead of millions on curriculum.” Luebbert answered her own question of what we need in a new superintendent by saying, “We do not need any Eli Broad-trained carpet-bagging careerists who do not know or understand our students, our schools, and our communities.” Luebbert’s ideal candidate should bring “their deep teaching experience into a school administration position as a principal…with a demonstrated capacity for being a true school leader: one who can balance the needs of students, families, school communities, and their staff without sacrificing collaboration or good will in the process.” Luebbert called on the Board to conduct a truly transparent search for the new superintendent. King commended the Board for its first attempt toward equity in selective admission schools, but said that the plan fails in numerous ways. The plan uses zip codes as a determinant, ignoring disparities of resources and incomes within them. In addition, there is no preference given to students in public elementary schools over those coming from private schools. King told the Board, “You pledged in the Goals & Guardrails to ‘End Racist Practices.’ Your plan is a baby step in the right direction, but as long as you continue refusing to admit or acknowledge these flaws, it’ll just be a different racist line in the sand.”