Unjustly silencing critics is backward move from Philly school board

A Philly school board meeting on March 18, 2021. Kristen A. Graham

The following commentary was written by APPS co-founder Lisa Haver and published by The Inquirer on April 12, 2021.

In February 2015, School Reform Commission (SRC) chair William Green made a unilateral decision, with no public vote or notification, to have police search the bags and confiscate the signs of parents and community members who came to be heard on the issue of impending charter expansion. Several members of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools (APPS), a grassroots education group that I cofounded, refused to submit to searches and were detained and had their signs confiscated.

It wasn’t the first time the SRC tried to silence members of the public, and it wouldn’t be the last. Members of grassroots organizations including APPS often found themselves placed at the end of the speaker list despite having signed up first. But the SRC never barred me or other APPS members from speaking.

Things have changed under the current school board. Before the March 25 meeting, three APPS members were notified that although they signed up on time, they would not be placed on the speaker list.

Over the past three months, the board has rolled out several changes in official board policy designed to silence regular critics of district leadership, including an arbitrary cap of 10 students and 30 adults. Speakers who signed up to speak at the Dec. 6 charter hearing saw that the notice now said two minutes, instead of the usual three. When APPS members asked when the board voted on these changes, we were told that these were not policy changes — they were procedural changes — so the board didn’t have to hold a public vote or give public notification.

Even if it were true that decades of precedence could be ignored, what does it say about the board that secrecy is the best policy? Are they turning decades-long policy and precedent on its head to shield themselves and the Hite administration from criticism?

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Open letter to Board of Education: APPS Demands Reversal of Speaker Rules

February 1, 2021  

Dear President Wilkerson and Members of the Board,  

On behalf of the members of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, we call on you reverse the changes to the Board’s official speaker policy imposed at the January 28 Action Meeting.   

For decades, from previous Boards through the School Reform Commission, members of the public have had three minutes in which to be heard on an issue—or issues. The Board, without warning or explanation, cut speakers’ time to two minutes and limited the number of speakers at every meeting. The Board did this without any public vote, violating not only the public trust but the PA Sunshine Act, by voting in secret and preventing any public comment.   

Earlier this year, President Wilkerson warned speakers that if they attempted to speak on any topic other than the one designated on their sign-up form, she would have their mics cut off.   

In contrast, charter operators were given hours-long hearings last week in which to sell their new charter applications, including a 15-minute period at the end of each hearing for closing remarks. When the Board votes on these applications, members of any affected communities will have only two minutes to argue for their denial.   

The reasons for this silencing became clear with Dr. Hite’s announcement, the day before the meeting, of his plan to send students and staff back into school buildings. In July 2020, parents, teachers, principals and students spoke for hours in opposition to Dr. Hite’s  plan. The Board clearly did not want a repeat. Anyone who tried to sign up Wednesday to speak on the plan found themselves blocked.   

Another reason emerged as we witnessed the Board’s 2 ½ hour discussion about the details of its new Goals and Guardrails.  The Board replaced public voices with their own. The first public speaker was not heard until almost three hours into the meeting. There was no consideration for parents who must feed children and help them with homework or for teachers trying to prepare lessons for the next day.   

The Board should not be using this time of public isolation to shut the public out even more.  

We demand that the Board reverse the changes in the Speakers Policy before the February 25 Action Meeting. Restore speaker time to three minutes. Remove the cap on the number of speakers.  Conduct all official business and hear from all public speakers before you embark on the next marathon Goals and Guardrails session.   

Parents, educators, students and members of the community should be seen by the Board as partners in advancing and improving public education, not obstacles.   

Sincerely,

Lisa Haver

Karel Kilimnik

Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools Calls on Board to Reject Hite Reopening Plan

Members of the grass-roots Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools have called on the Board of Education to reject the reopening plan presented by Superintendent William Hite Wednesday. The Board, which approved a version of the plan months ago, would have to place the Item on Thursday’s Action Meeting agenda. 

“Dr. Hite’s plan is not based on current data or evidence, or even the District’s own information,” said APPS Coordinator Lisa Haver. “The updates presented monthly to the Board of Education from Dr. Hite and the Chief Operations Officer still do not say that District buildings are ready for reopening. Inadequate ventilation remains an issue, and in many buildings, windows do not open at all.”

“Solicited testimonials from school officials who serve under Dr. Hite or from representatives of the business community are not a substitute for facts and data”, said Haver. “The Board must fulfill its obligation to the families and educators of the District by rejecting this plan and considering reopening only when buildings are adequately ventilated and all personnel are vaccinated. The Board cannot sit by while the health and safety of children and adults are given less than full consideration by the Hite administration.” 

APPS, OCOS Demand to Be Heard on Selection of Board Members

December 7, 2020


Dear Mayor Kenney,


On behalf of the members of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools and the member organizations of the Our City, Our Schools Coalition, we are writing to ask that the community no longer be shut out of the selection process for the three current Board of Education vacancies. 
The Nominating Panel you appointed has held no public meetings and has none scheduled. The Panel’s 22-minute remote event of November 17 included no opportunity for hearing public testimony.  The public has been denied any knowledge of who has applied and how the Panel is weighing those applications.  

At this time, we are asking:  that all applications for this public position be released to the public; that you delay the December 15 deadline for the Panel’s submission of their recommended candidates to your office; that you direct the Panel to conduct all deliberations in public; that you direct the Panel to include interactive public testimony at its next public convening. 

Click here to read the rest of the letter.