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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Eyes on the Board of Education: December 12, 2019

by Karel Kilimnik 

Walk down any hall at 440 and pass five senior staff members–odds are that three will be Broad Academy alums or fellows,  including Superintendent William Hite. Go to their Linkedin pages and search for any not Teach for America-trained.  Central Office staff are now all “Chiefs”–not Directors– taking a page from Jeb Bush’s  Chiefs for Change, another corporate reform lobbying group advocating the usual failed policies including uniform implementation of Common Core State Standards, using test scores to evaluate teachers, A-to-F report cards for schools, expanding charter schools, and expansion of dehumanizing online learning. The Board is poised to approve contracts for more Broad Fellows based both in Central Administration Offices and in targeted schools. Instead of rising through District administrative levels,  many are brought in from afar via TFA and TNTP.

Grants from foundations and non-profits open the door for  their anonymous board members to influence curriculum and learning across the District. The William Penn Foundation, who paid for the now infamous Boston Consulting Group plan to close neighborhood schools in 2013,  has moved into underwriting Early Childhood Education programs. The Neubauer Family Foundation, built on Aramark money, is partnering with the Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP) on Principal Mentoring (Item 31).  Last month, the Board approved, despite some member’s concerns, accepting a grant from Neubauer in  support of the questionable KIPP College Match Program that the District will have to pick up the tab for after the grant runs out.  These items are touted as the latest best practices but offer no solid research to support those claims. Like many Hite administration initiatives, from Redesign Schools to Renaissance Charters to the System of Great Schools,  there is little if any data to indicate success. And their shelf lives are short. Business consultants replace education experts, as in the case of Item 9 (Contract with District Management Group, LLC for Operations and Facilities Review). This contract reveals scant information, again contradicting the Board’s commitment to transparency and accountability. These contracts should be published concurrent with Board approval, thus ending the public’s having to file a Right to Know request and waiting weeks or months for the document. Educators have been relegated to the back of the room when decisions are made about spending priorities while the Board spends more on outside corporate consultants. Is this any way to run a school district?

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Eyes on the Board of Education: October 17, 2019

by Karel Kilimnik

With the rapidly unfolding debacle of the planned co-location of SLA at Ben Franklin High School, the Board needs to step up and provide leadership on District spending priorities. Stop fattening the bottom lines of outside vendors and increase spending to guarantee that all schools are healthy environments.  The Board needs to start denying contracts to vendors and demanding that the Superintendent build resources and support from within the District. District governance returned to local control over a year ago; it is past time to return to building up District staffing and resources.

 

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Eyes on the Board of Education: September 19, 2019

by Karel Kilimnik

Years ago the garden of privatization seeds were sown, the garden well tended by corporate disruptors, and now in full bloom. The current administration, led by the Broad Academy-trained Superintendent William Hite, has been steadily outsourcing everything from school staff to special education services to support for central administration.

Crumbling and toxic buildings, along with past and future school closings, give lie to the District’s stated goal of having  “a great school close to where children live”. Not long ago children walked to their neighborhood school. Teachers spent their career teaching in one or two schools. That has all changed now as the winds of corporate reform continue to blow through the District.

Corporate education supporters hold Board and CEO positions at many of the vendors who are offered contracts before the Board this month.  Attuned Education Partners (Item 7) is rife with officials from TFA,  Broad Academy, Relay GSE, and McKinsey & Company. The Executive Director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education is on the Board of  Relay GSE Board.

Item 6-Amendments to Contracts with ACS Consultants, EBS Healthcare, and Progressus Therapy – Special Education Teachers diverts more taxpayer money into the pockets of outside vendors as the District continues to struggle to recruit and retain teachers.

An honest effort toward teacher retention includes examining working conditions. Teachers have been held accountable for the failures of No Child Left Behind and the testing culture that permeates school systems. Additional stressors here include incompetent school leadership and continual turmoil inflicted by the Acceleration Network and Priority Schools turnovers. Before the corporate “dump the losers” mentality took hold,  it was not uncommon for teachers to spend their professional life in one or two schools. That is true stability.

Items 41 through 47 (Mastery Charter School Renewals) present a list of seven Mastery Renaissance Charter Schools, most of whose new contracts have lingered unsigned for years. The Charter Schools Office (CSO)  now recommends what amounts to retroactive renewals–without calling them that–some as far back as 2016. Although 5 of these Renaissance schools were recommended for 5-year Renewals with Conditions by the CSO when they first came up for a vote, the conditions have now been disappeared by the CSO.  The renewals specify that they “ do not include any school-specific conditions”. What was removed that Mastery did not want to implement? The public was never told what the conditions were, so we have no way to know what was rejected by this charter operator. The District conducts all charter renewal agreements in secret.  The SRC treats charter schools as clients, not as public schools, and the Board is continuing that practice. Where is that data proving the success of the Renaissance Charter School Program in ensuring “that all students have a great school close to where they live”? The District website states:  “A Renaissance Charter School is a neighborhood school that is operated as a public charter school and can only enroll students from the neighborhood, also known as a catchment zone.” But Councilmember Helen Gym’s report provides data showing a rise in out-of-catchment students at several Renaissance charter schools.

Allowing negotiations between charter management companies and the District to be conducted behind closed doors, and allowing Charter operators to refuse to correct their academic and financial deficiencies, simply continues the SRC practice of providing cover for charter operators at the cost of actual public schools.  Based on the District’s 2019 Budget Vendor List, the projected cost for these seven Mastery Renaissance Charter Schools over their five-year contract is $$888, 494, 511. 

Charters grow like weeds as they regularly apply for amendments to increase school enrollment (Items 39 & 40 KIPP Charter School ). Inadequate public information is provided for these expensive Items; in fact, there is not even a cost posted.  The SRC actually provided far more details than the skimpy descriptions given by the Board. One of the four Board’s stated priorities is “Transparency”. Failing to provide adequate descriptions of what is being voted on does nothing to support that commitment.

What If…

….the Board refused to approve any more enrollment changes for charters until district-run schools were all housed in healthy buildings? 

October Board of Education Action Meeting: Thursday October 17, 5 PM at 440 N. Broad Street.  To register to speak, call 215.400.5959 by 3 PM Wednesday October 16, or fill out the form on the Board’s webpage.

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