Eyes on the Board of Education: June 25, 2020

by Karel Kilimnik

The people of Philadelphia continue their struggle to survive, personally and financially, under the weight of the Covid-19 pandemic.  We witness the social upheaval as people demand an end to  police brutality and systemic racism. But at 440, not much has changed. The Board, despite public demands for months, continues to conduct non-essential business in remote meetings with a minimum of public participation. At its June Committee meeting, most Board members offered personal statements about what Black Lives Matter meant to them.  But as APPS members reminded them in their testimony, how the Board votes will prove whether these statements carry any weight. At the June 11 Joint Committee meeting, few substantial questions were raised about District business by these eight government officials. Almost no deliberation took place about the Items to be voted on at this Action meeting. Planning the  next school year is fraught with obstacles never faced in our lifetimes. District families will be dealing with even higher rates of unemployment and evictions. All of these issues must be addressed with genuine parent, staff, and community engagement–not just the perfunctory distribution of surveys. Surveys often raise more questions than they resolve. As District parent and activist Cecelia Thompson has told the Board at its last two meetings, parents and community members have issues that are not addressed in surveys. The District’s commitment to engagement with stakeholders has reached a new low after years of eliminating positions for community liaison officers and NTAs. The Board’s (soon to be defunct) Community Engagement Committee has held no public meetings for over a year and has no plans to schedule any. Schools will look very different next year no matter what type of format is put into place. District educators and parents should be heard on this, not just be asked to fill out surveys. The corona virus provides cover for all kinds of changes–in public meetings and in how business is conducted. Could it lead to closing schools next year–without any real opportunity for the public to fight it? Remember that both Dr. Hite and Mayor Kenney have stated publicly that they support closing more public schools.

At the June 11 Joint Committee meeting, Board Member Julia Danzy said,  “This is not a sprint but a marathon. We cannot change by simply talking but by actions taken.” This Board needs to step up and lead the District as we make our way through these tumultuous times. Non-essential Items should be set aside while we focus on what all students need, not just those in some selected schools.  “Watch how we vote, not what we say” truly applies to Item 59, Contract with “TBD” for Charter School Special Education Program Evaluation and Master. This Item is so vaguely written that APPS sent a letter asking for clarification. President Wilkerson informed us we would learn more from their discussion at the Joint Committee Meeting held on June 11. However, no such discussion occurred nor did any Board member ask about the missing information. 

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Eyes on the Board of Education: April 30, 2020

by Karel Kilimnik

During this difficult time, when it seems like the earth has opened up under our feet, the Board must be especially mindful of its leadership roles as government officials overseeing a $3 billion budget. In times of crisis, there is often pressure to bypass rules in the name of “flexibility”.  While some expediency may be called for, more important is maintaining democratic structures and public trust. Last month, the Board approved a last-minute Item that ceded some of its own powers to Superintendent Hite, granting him the authority to spend up to $15 million on contracts needed to deal with the COVID-19 crisis.  The Item appears on the April 30 agenda for renewal. Kudos to Dr. Hite for instructing Chief of Staff Naomi Wyatt to recommend, at the April 23 joint committee meeting, that the Board not renew.  APPS stated its strong objection to this action, and we support its elimination.

The ongoing economic collapse portends serious budget problems for the District. Revenues from the Philadelphia Parking Authority (PPA), Rideshare tax, liquor-by-the-drink tax, and others will  take a dive. For many, memories of the 2013-14 Doomsday Budget linger. The School Reform Commission approved a budget that temporarily eliminated secretaries, assistant principals, counselors, certified librarians, extra-curricular activities including sports, most support staff, music and art, and new books.

Dr. Hite and the Board have urged the public to contact state representatives and Governor Wolf to ensure that the state education budget remains intact; if not, the federal government would lend some assistance but would not provide the same level of funding. The District has put a freeze on hiring central office staff, and Dr. Hite has also stated that his Administration is  “reviewing and prioritizing all Action Items and contracts”.  That review should include all unnecessary contracts including those for outsourced professional development from companies such as  TFA, Jounce and others.  Given the impending budget crisis, no charter school amendments for increased enrollment should be approved.  This month’s agenda includes two: Laboratory Charter School of Communication and Languages and Community Academy of Philadelphia Charter School.  As we stated in our March 24 letter to the Board,  “We have also asked that all non-essential Items be withdrawn for now, and that each Item Description include a sentence explaining why it is essential and must be voted on this month.“

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Eyes on the Board of Education: February 27, 2020

by Karel Kilimnik

If privatization and outsourcing are truly innovative, why don’t we see more of that in affluent suburbs like Lower Merion? As we review the list of Items the Board will consider at its next Action Meeting, there seems to be no end to the contracts with private vendors to take on work traditionally done by District staff. Companies that have been the lifeblood of the corporate disruption movement like Teach for America are now  joined by newer players Relay Graduate School of Education (which, as Board Member Chris McGinley reminds his colleagues, is not really a graduate school and is not accredited in Pennsylvania) and the District Management Group, hired to perform tasks formerly done by District Staff (Items 15, 16, 17). Dr Hite sent a letter to all District staff last week imploring District staff to aid in recruitment efforts under his “Teach Today. Change Tomorrow” initiative.  Why is he recommending spending $325,000 on TFA Recruitment if this campaign was just launched? Hundreds of thousands have been spent on teacher recruitment in the past three years–where are the results? Is the push for TFA an indication that that recruitment effort failed? The Board does not have to take on the rubber-stamp function of the SRC. The Board can take a stand and restore teacher recruitment and professional development to the District.

Dr Hite, a 2003 graduate of the business-oriented Broad Superintendents Academy, continues to outsource rather than build internal structures and capacity. The primary belief by the Billionaire Boys Club, of which Eli Broad is a member (note more details under #15,Contract with Teach for America to Support Teacher Hiring $325,000)), are described succinctly by Curmudgucation blogger Peter Greene “… Broad does not believe that schools have an education problem; he believes they have a management problem. School leadership does not need an infusion of educational leadership–they need business guys, leadership guys….there is no external governing or certifying board of any sort declaring that the Broad Superintendent’s Academy is a legitimate thing, and yet, it exists and thrives.”

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Eyes on the Board of Education: January 30, 2020

by Karel Kilimnik

Almost one-fifth of January’s Action Items address the ongoing toxic schools crisis.  The Board will be voting on contracts to outside vendors totaling approximately $40 million– this month alone. Toxic conditions in the city’s schools are being discovered every week. Most district buildings were built when the dangers of lead and asbestos were not fully understood. But that does not excuse the years of inaction after those dangers became clear.  Essential reading includes the June 2019 Inquirer Series on Toxic Schools , in which a team of investigative reporters created three sections based on interviews and data:  Danger: Learn at your own risk;  Hidden Peril; and Botched Jobs. Since schools opened in September, lead and asbestos has been discovered in more schools, resulting in the growing demand from parents, students, teachers, and community members to fix them. Time and again the District has failed to listen to stakeholders. Contractors who performed shoddy and incomplete work are rehired; much of the construction takes place during school hours. Contractors have failed to safely dispose of contaminated materials or to adequately cordon off work areas, and their completed work does not pass environmental testing. On January 20, the PFT held a press conference  announcing its intent to seek a remedy through the courts as the District has failed to work with the union to correct the situation. This edition of Eyes focuses on the issues raised as seen by the many contracts awaiting approval.

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