Eyes on the Board of Education: March 28, 2019

by Karel Kilimnik

As income inequality grows each year, we witness philanthropic institutions and foundations funding more District projects and programs.  Schools across the Commonwealth have still not recovered from the massive cuts former Governor Corbett imposed on districts. Pennsylvania still lags in funding public schools that must now rely more than ever on local real estate taxes. As corporations and the wealthy receive more tax cuts,  resulting in less government funding available for public education, the burden of funding schools falls on the shoulders of local taxpayers. All these private funders blur the lines of accountability and transparency. They are accountable to their investors–not the public.

Parent Involvement

Parent involvement continues to be an issue as the District makes decisions often without  informing parents and community members. The Mayfair School (Action Item 26) is about to receive a 14-classroom modular classroom to alleviate overcrowding. However, it appears that few if any Mayfair stakeholders were aware of this until we notified them. Outsourcing continues, whether it’s for financial matters (Action Item 7), Special Ed (Action Item 10), or counseling (Action Item 39). Once again the philanthropy/non-Profit sector steps up to fund school projects (Action Items 21 & 23). Good people may be doing good things for others, but shouldn’t we have a tax base that covers adequate school funding with everyone paying their fair share of taxes?

Public Notification and Involvement an Ongoing Problem

As we have noted in previous editions of  Eyes, the Board is failing to provide printed copies to the public of items to be acted upon at both Action and Committee meetings. Under the guise of going green, no paper copies of Action Items are available for the public at Action Meetings. Three binders with print copies of the Action Items continue to sit on a table in the rear of the auditorium with a warning not to remove–as if these are not public documents. How is the public supposed to follow the deliberation and voting on the numerous Action Items without a written guide? Until October 2018, the Board followed the SRC’s practice of distributing sufficient copies of resolutions at every meeting.  That needs to be restored. Not everyone has a laptop to follow along as Board members discuss Items they will be voting on. Reading these lengthy documents on a small cellphone screen is difficult if not impossible. How much money is really being saved at the expense of informing participants?

Agenda Problems

The Board Agenda continues to be problematic. Initially there were 40 Items, then there were 39. (We copied the original Agenda Items in case any disappeared.) The original Action Item 39 vanished. It has now been replaced with the former Action Item 40 ratifying a Contract with 12Plus. The original item read:  Action Item 39:  Contract with Project Based Learning, Inc. (Schools – Contracts).  Project Based Learning,Inc is a non-profit that  supports The Workshop School.

We understand that changes happen. The SRC actually noted next to the resolution  “Withdrawn by staff” and provided the withdrawal date. This meant that every resolution had its own number. The Board no longer follows this practice. They simply adjust the numbers without any explanation or date of change.  Board members continue to say that they want to be accountable and transparent. These changes would be a decisive move in that direction.

April Board of Education Action Meeting: Thursday April 25 at 5 PM.  To register to speak, call 215 400 4010 by Wednesday April 24 at 3 or fill out the form on the Board’s webpage.

Click here to read the rest of the report

Eyes on the Board of Education: February 28, 2019

by Karel Kilimnik

At the Board’s inaugural meeting last July, many new Board members made a commitment to transparency and community involvement. Agenda Items, alas, do not reflect these promises. In September 2018, the Board posted documents related to Action Items, including a list of new hires and terminations, City of Philadelphia documents on Authorization of Keystone Opportunities Zone, and the conditions for approving the new MaST Charter School. The Action Item descriptions were much fuller and more descriptive than the paltry information presented since then. The fact that the Board posted Contract Summaries, which we had asked the SRC to post many times, seemed to be a fulfillment of their commitment to transparency. Unfortunately, that was the first and last time anything resembling a contract was posted.  In October, the Board presented another Agenda format that actually had fewer details in Action Items. Also, despite our protestations, the Board has stopped providing paper copies of anything but the agenda at Action Meetings, making it impossible for the public to follow the discussions (if any) and votes on Action Items. The Board places three binders at the back table with a warning not to remove the materials. So are members of the public supposed to sit in the back if they want to know what is going on? Is this their idea of transparency? These are public documents and the public has every right to take them. The Board should provide adequate copies. Unfortunately this parsing of information continues today resulting in a lack of transparency. Their descriptions are uninformative and we continue to question what few nuggets of information are provided to the public.

Superintendent Hite continues to outsource services to vendors instead of building the capacity of District staff. We continue to remind him and the Board that there is a wealth of experience and knowledge within both the teaching and the school support staff. Building on these strengths would lead to greater teacher retention. When people feel respected and listened to, they do not feel the need to leave. Many ESOL teachers have come to both  Committee Meetings and Action Meetings to praise the professional development provided by WestEd QTEL (Action item 34). Hopefully the Board will listen and approve this Action Item.

Three charter school applications are going to be considered for approval at this meeting  (Action Items 4,5 & 6). The District’s Charter Schools Office has issued reports which enumerate significant problems with all of the applications. The District cannot afford to spend almost $119 million over the next five years on unnecessary charters. Our aging school facilities are in dire need of repair. Those millions could make a dent in the estimated $4 billion needed to bring every building up to code. The charter law makes it difficult–but not impossible–to shut down a failing charter, so approving a charter would mean at least a ten-year financial burden on the District. If the Board takes its promise to improve the opportunities for the schoolchildren of the city, then they have an obligation to vote no on these applications. (See the APPS charter reports here).

The next Board Action Meeting is Thursday February 28th at 5 PM.  The community must come out to urge the Board to vote no more charters! If you cannot attend please  submit written testimony by 5 PM Feburary 27 to schoolboard@philasd.org,  telling the Board what your school needs but will not be able to afford if the District sinks another $120 million into new charters. To sign up to testify call 215-400-4010 by 3 pm on Wednesday Feb. 27th.

Click here to read the rest of the report

Eyes on the Board of Education: January 17, 2019

by Karel Kilimnik

NOTE:  Unlike the BOE and District leadership when we are mistaken in what we have written we will take ownership and remedy the problem. Based on the testimony given by numerous ESOL teachers at the Janaury 17th Board meeting we feel compelled to retract the APPS Analysis for Action item 11 Contract with WestEd Professional Development for EL Instruction. According to teachers who actually implement ESOL instruction they find that QTEL is one of the best Professional Development Programs they have encountered. Also, we were mistaken in  identifying the William Penn Foundation funding for this project.  It is for another of WestEd’s programs. It is not for QTEL.

Budget Issues

The largest single allotment in the District’s budget goes to the 87 charter schools. Although there are no Action Items on this month’s agenda regarding charters, the Board will consider three new applicants next month. The Board must remember these facts when they decide in February:

  • The District cannot afford any more charters.
  • The Charter School Office is seriously understaffed; it has only 12 staff members to monitor 87 schools.
  • Our review of renewal evaluations shows consistent barriers to enrollment, lack of due process when students are accused of infractions, and expulsion for minor infractions such as uniform violations.
  • Many if not most charters pay rent and management fees to private companies; the Board has no control over those costs.
  • Neither the Board nor the public has access to the financial records of the Real Estate/Management companies which profit from the charter system, thus they have no control over those costs.
  • Administrative salaries and compensation are decided by the boards of the individual charters, not the Board of Education.  Ten charter CEOs, according to the most recent tax information, are paid over $200,000 in salary and compensation–and all of those schools have SPR Achievement ratings which place them in the Intervene category.
  • Charters do not offer “choice” to parents. The charter school chooses its students.
  • The PA Charter School Law has been called one of the worst in the country by many, including PA Auditor General Anthony DePasquale.

According to Nobel Laureate economist Dr. Joseph E. Stiglitz, the US has the highest rate of economic inequality among “any of the advanced countries”. Gains achieved over the last fifty years have gone almost exclusively to the top 1%.  The destruction of “The American Dream” is felt deeply in our public schools where resources are scarce, union collective bargaining rights are rolled back, and teachers are blamed for this situation even as their wages and buying power diminish. Students suffer in toxic buildings with inadequate resources. . In 2013 the SRC passed Dr. Hite’s Doomsday Budget, resulting in massive layoffs of counselors, teachers, and other support staff. Our District is still reeling from the $1 billion budget cuts implemented by former Governor Corbett. The District is now led by a Broad Academy-trained superintendent. Eli Broad, an advancer of free-market ideology and policies,  is one of many uber-wealthy “philanthropists” pushing their corporate education agenda in public school districts across the country. Experience and degrees in education are secondary. Self-proclaimed innovation and an entrepreneurial spirit will suffice. Charter school proliferation at the expense of traditional district-run schools has been an important strategy in the corporate education agenda of privatization. Relationships in the school community have become secondary to competition and technology.

Ongoing Website Issues

Board of Education members are government officials with a stated commitment to  “…provide our diverse audiences with information that is relevant, timely, and easily accessible.”  If so, then why is navigating their website so complicated? It’s akin to wandering through a labyrinth in search of the exit (or information in this case).

Some questions:

  • Why is information dated prior to 2015-16 still not posted? When the City of Philadelphia made its transition to a new website, users were given the option of using the previous format or the new one. We suggested that the District do the same, but that fell on deaf ears. We were told that it would take about a year to fill in the older documents, but they remain unavailable.
  • Older documents can only be obtained by filing an official Right to Know request, which can take over 5 weeks to process.  It is also an unnecessary waste of staff time to search for information that should be online.
  • Why is nothing posted from the October and November Action Meetings?

The District has a fully staffed IT Department. If  they cannot resolve these issues, they should demand a refund from the vendor that sold them this program. These are public documents that, as the Board acknowledges, should be “easily accessible”. They are not. What is being done to remedy this situation?

Click here to read the rest of the article

Eyes on the Board of Education: December 13, 2018

By Karel Kilimnik

Educators and defenders of public education across the city were shocked to see Dr. Hite and the Mayor as guests at a press conference called last Wednesday by Philadelphia School Partnership Director Mark Gleason. Unknown to anyone but a few insiders, the Hite administration had entered into an agreement with PSP in which that private organization would direct applicants for teaching positions–district, charter and private–to a website created and controlled by PSP.

Why is the Superintendent of a public school system handing over control of one of its most important functions to a private organization? Is the District Office of Talent now accountable to the Board of PSP?  PSP was created in order to carry out the privatization and charterization of the district. The news media unquestioningly repeats PSP’s identification of itself as a “non-profit” that funds schools.  PSP is on record as saying the district’s teachers make too much money. PSP lobbied then-Governor Corbett to WITHHOLD funds from the School District unless PFT members took a substantial pay cut and surrendered long-held collective bargaining rights. Did the Board of Education give its OK for this move? We’ll be asking that and other questions about this latest PSP power grab at this meeting.

The Board’s website continues to present hurdles.  The Agenda may number each Action Item, but click on it and you are delivered to a page  bearing no identifying number. Whenever an additional Action Item is posted, it automatically changes the numbers of all of the Action Items below it. The SRC at least would add a Resolution with an entirely new number. They also listed the Resolutions according to topic (e.g., Operations, Donations).  Hopefully the Board will change this practice. Each Action Item needs its own number and every reference must include that number. We await the return of Contract Summaries as posted in August and September, then discontinued for some reason, as the Board continues its journey into becoming more transparent.

Seeking Equity Across the District

While the Hite administration invokes the term “equity” in City Council and Board meetings, the ongoing issue is the lack of equity.  Some schools have Home & School Councils (Action Items # 42 and #43) able to raise large sums of money.  Philadelphia retains its position as the poorest of the country’s ten largest cities. Our rate of deep poverty (those living at 50% of the poverty line or less) has actually risen. Given these statistics, what is the District’s Plan to ensure that every school gets support, not just those in more affluent neighborhoods? How is the District planning to level the playing field for all schools? The SGS initiative has targeted  “underperforming” schools with long histories of lost resources, leaving them with no choice but to accept unrequested professional development services from businesses with a foothold in the district. In the past two years, SGS schools have seen the imposition of vendors and the forcing of all teachers to reapply for their positions without due cause–things no parents have said they wanted.  This only leads to destablization of already struggling schools without providing resources the school’s community has said they need.

The APPS articles on the SGS Focus Schools provide a detailed list of what parents, staff, and community members at the three schools in this year’s SGS cohort have said they want for their schools. As we review this month’s  Action Items we see other ways of providing financial support to individual schools such as contracts with non-profits (Action Items # 44–Steppingstones and # 30–Playworks) and/ or universities (# 29 and # 38–Drexel).

Click here to read the rest of the post