APPS Files Right to Know Appeal on District’s Secret Meetings with Charter Operators

by Lynda Rubin
August 9, 2017

APPS has filed an appeal to the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records after receiving sparse information from the district in response to a formal Right to Know request filed in May. That request was filed after a NewsWorks article, also published in the Public School Notebook, revealed that SRC and district officials had met for months behind closed doors with several charter operators and industry supporters.

imgresHigh-level school district officials—including Superintendent William Hite, Charter School Office Director Dawn Lynne Kacer and SRC Chief of Staff Claire Landau—met behind closed doors for over six months with several charter operators and charter industry lobbyists, including Philadelphia School Partnership Director Mark Gleason, Mastery Schools CEO Scott Gordon, Russell Byers CEO Laurada Byers, Global Leadership Academy CEO Naomi Booker and PCCY Executive Director Donna Cooper.

The reason given by district spokespersons for those meetings was to discuss changes in the state’s charter law being proposed in the state legislature. No explanation was given for the secrecy of the meetings or the exclusion of advocacy groups and individuals who had come out publicly against the pending bill. If the SRC and district had intended to create language which balanced the ability of public schools to thrive side-by-side with charters, advocates to safeguard public school interests would have been involved and the meetings would, and should, have been held publicly.

APPS filed a legal Right-to-Know request with the SRC and School District on May 23, 2017 in order to discover the exact nature of these meetings: who attended and what was discussed, as well as any communications about proposed resolutions drafted by the group or individuals on behalf of the group.

The district’s Office of General Counsel responded on July 14, 2017, providing few details beyond those already included in the NewsWorks article. In fact, the district claimed that no minutes were taken. One of the heavily redacted emails between Landau and Amanda Fenton, Director of State and Federal Policy for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, referred to “the attached proposal for a comprehensive overview of the legislative proposal with the items discussed added.” However, the district claimed in its official response that the proposal in question was “an internal document”. A follow-up email from Landau to Fenton (Subject: “Legislative Language Check-In”) states, “Attached is the document that sums up where we are at the moment.” That document was also redacted by the district’s lawyers in the RTK response to APPS.

When SRC and district officials meet in secret, for months, with the managers of the schools they are supposed to be regulating, that is an obvious conflict of interest. That should be investigated by the PA Attorney General. When SRC and district officials meet to discuss legislation it will be proposing or supporting, that is a public matter. APPS will be investigating possible violations of the PA Sunshine Act, which says that the public has a right to know, and comment on, what its government officials are doing when conducting public business.

APPS Attorney Rich Migliore has filed an appeal to obtain all requested information and documents. Stay posted for the outcome of this appeal.

Actions show District prioritizes charter operators | Commentary by Lisa Haver and Lynda Rubin in the Public School Notebook – June 12, 2017

 

Actions show District prioritizes charter operators

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Closed-door meetings, postponed renewal votes and approvals of underperforming charters create questions about transparency.

The following commentary was published by the Philadelphia Public School Notebook on June 12, 2017

by Lisa Haver and Lynda Rubin

In September 2016, the School Reform Commission posted renewal resolutions that had been postponed for over a year for Mastery Gratz, Mastery Shoemaker, and Mastery Clymer; all three resolutions were withdrawn just before the meeting. They were re-posted in October and November and withdrawn before both meetings. Although test scores indicated that serious improvement was needed at two of the schools, Mastery objected to the conditions recommended by the Charter Schools Office.

In March 2017, the board of Russell Byers Charter School filed a request with the School Reform Commission for permission to relocate some students to an auxiliary location. The SRC approved the request at its May 1 action meeting.

During that time, the District was holding secret meetings with several charter operators and investors, including Laurada Byers, founder and board chair of Russell Byers Charter, and Scott Gordon, CEO of Mastery Charter Schools. According to Avi Wolfman-Arent’s story in NewsWorks, high-ranking District officials including Superintendent William Hite, Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson, and Charter Schools Office Executive Director DawnLynne Kacer met over a six-month period with representatives from several charter companies, along with charter supporter and investor Mark Gleason, executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership.

The purpose of those meetings, according to District officials, was to formulate a replacement for the state’s existing charter law. Hite told NewsWorks, ironically: “We wanted whatever we came up with to be transparent and predictable.”

In fact, those closed-door meetings ran concurrent with both the charter renewal and new charter application processes. In February, the SRC voted on three new charter applications after reviewing reports presented by Kacer and her staff. That office also presents recommendations on whether existing charters should be renewed.

On May 1, with less than one week’s notice, the SRC voted to renew eight of the 23 charters due for renewal. Before the meeting, the SRC made a decision to postpone, apparently indefinitely, voting on the 11 schools whose managers refused to agree to what they characterized as unfair conditions by the District. Were some of those same charter operators present at the closed-door meetings?

Far from the District and charters having a relationship of “bickering,” as the article refers to, the SRC continues to prove that the interests of charter operators take precedence over those of District stakeholders.  At its last meeting, the SRC approved yet another new charter, denied just three months ago, despite Kacer’s statement that the CSO found “no substantive differences” between the original and revised applications. The SRC has allowed clearly substandard charters such as Aspira and Universal to continue to operate by simply kicking the can down the road for more than a year (in Aspira’s case, more than two years) and offering no explanation to the public.

Serious questions have arisen about how these private meetings between District officials and charter executives have influenced the District’s decisions over the last six months. Kacer sat across the table from managers and board chairs of the very schools for which she decides whether to recommend renewal.  At the May 1 SRC meeting, she referred several times to the “Mastery family of schools.”

District officials told NewsWorks that the purpose of the meetings was to form an alliance to stop Pennsylvania House Bill 97, a new charter bill that would have serious financial repercussions, from being passed. That bill, of course, would have to be palatable to the charter owners and investors including Mark Gleason, who in 2015 offered the SRC $35 million to approve 39 new charters. Offering government officials large sums of money to pass a resolution is the definition of a bribe, but the SRC actually considered it. This year alone, the SRC has approved five resolutions in as many months for PSP initiatives in public schools. Why were no independent education activists — no parents or educators —invited to the table?

When public officials meet with organizations that they have been entrusted to regulate, the people have a right to know exactly what they are doing and saying. Hite had many opportunities during those six months to inform the taxpayers who pay his salary what he and his staff were negotiating with charter operators.

No one other than those in the room knows what was discussed or negotiated. After months of secrecy, the District cannot expect anyone to trust its word on this. We don’t know all of the players or the totality of what was discussed. The Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools has filed a right-to-know request asking for the names of all who attended, minutes of meetings, and all communications.

Parents, educators, and community members who advocate for public schools at SRC meetings know that their microphone will be turned off at exactly three minutes. But charter managers get all the time in the world.

Lisa Haver is a retired teacher and co-founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools (APPS).  Lynda Rubin is a retired school counselor and legislative liaison for APPS.

 

 

 

School Reform Commission still a destructive agency

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by Lisa Haver
published in the Philadelphia Daily News – June 8, 2017.

In April, the Inquirer/Daily News conducted a reader survey on whether City Council should hold hearings on Council’s $17 million budget.  No surprise that most who responded voted “Yes.” Taxpayers want to know how elected officials are spending their money, and they want to have their say about it.

 Most Philadelphians probably feel the same about appointed officials, especially those who hold the purse strings on a budget that totals almost $3 billion. The School Reform Commission, after 16 years of everything but reform, continues to earn its reputation as the city’s least transparent, most destructive governmental body, second only, perhaps, to the Philadelphia Parking Authority.

My reader survey would ask these questions:

 Should the SRC release the district’s $2.9 budget before the public hearing?

The district’s first official budget hearing on April 20 opened with the unveiling of its lump-sum budget. Alliance members who requested that it be released before the meeting, so that the public could review it and ask informed questions, were told by the SRC that it was “ever-changing” and would not be available until the meeting.

Should the SRC hold hearings on contracts over $10 million? How about $50 million?

At its Feb. 16 meeting, the SRC approved two contracts for food services totaling $90 million.  No hearings were held; there wasn’t even a staff presentation at the meeting itself. In March, the SRC renewed its contract with Durham bus service, again without deliberation, for $69 million. A subsequent news story revealed that the district had just sent this company, which it hired after outsourcing all of its bus services, a legal notification that it was in breach of contract. Several parents had complained in writing and at SRC meetings that their children were not being picked up on time or at all several days a week.

Should the SRC hold hearings on reviewing and amending its official policies at 9 a.m.?

 The newly created Policy Committee has scheduled its meetings for a time when the teachers who must implement the policies, and the students and parents who will be affected by them, are unable to attend or provide any insight on how the policies could best be formulated and carried out.

Should the SRC be allowed to vote without telling the people exactly what they are voting on? 

The SRC has decided that in some cases it will reveal only the topic to be voted on.  Full resolutions are composed and posted after the meeting.  The official SRC minutes then report that those are the resolutions they actually voted on.  Like to see City Council or the state Legislature try that one.

Should the SRC be allowed to ignore its own rules?

At an April meeting with only three commissioners present, one left early, without notice; the SRC, in violation of its own bylaws, continued without a quorum.  At a meeting the following week, the same commissioner left again, missing not only most of the public speakers but an hourlong staff presentation on the sole topic under consideration.

Should the SRC schedule a meeting in which it plans to decide on renewals of 23 charter schools with less than a week’s notice?

The district’s budget shows that it will spend $894 million — about one-third of the budget — on charters next year. Shouldn’t the SRC allow enough time for those paying the tab to read the reports? They may want to ask why schools that have met none of the standards are being recommended for renewal.

Should the SRC publicly deliberate before voting on significant financial, academic and policy resolutions?

The SRC approved contracts totaling $149.2 million at its February meeting; it spent $173.1 million in March. Resolutions are voted on in batches of 10 or 15, with little explanation of why.

How do we reform the School Reform Commission? By abolishing it. Philadelphians have the right, as all other Pennsylvanians do, to decide who will represent them on an elected school board.

Lisa Haver is a retired teacher and co-founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools.

Also see:
Lisa Haver: It Is Time to Establish Democratic Control of Philadelphia’s Public Schools | Diane Ravitch’s blog – June 9, 2017