Board of Education Public Hearing: September 26, 2019

by Lynda Rubin

The recently amended Philadelphia Home Rule Charter mandates that the Board of Education hold at least two public hearings each school year for the sole purpose of giving parents, students, teachers, and community members the right and opportunity to address the Board with concerns, suggestions, complaints and questions. One purpose of making these hearings part of the City Charter was to underline that the Board is a public body that needs to engage with and be responsive to the public will. The Board may not always agree with members of the public, but they do have to consider the wishes of the people as they make decisions about spending tax dollars and formulating educational policy. The city’s populace successfully fought to have the School Reform Commission replaced with a Board precisely because the SRC ignored the people’s interests and inclusion in the process of running public schools for our city’s children. That this Board is appointed by the mayor and not elected by voters in no way diminishes the fact that its members are expected to be working on behalf of the public–that is, their constituents.

In light of that, it is inexplicable that the Board did not publicized this meeting commensurate with its importance, resulting in a disappointingly under-attended meeting. Board members were informed by staff that robo-calls were made to parents, and that notice was posted on the District’s website. But this notice  required a more descriptive and inviting name than the two-word “Public Hearing” in a small box in the Board calendar, which requires several page clicks to find. As community activist Mama Gail Clouden pointed out in her testimony, students’ home and cell phone numbers are changed too often to be a reliable means of contact. At the very least, a banner with the meeting information should have been prominently placed on the Home Page of the District’s website where anyone who goes to the website for any reason will see it. The Board should explore such ideas as using PSAs (Public Service Announcements) on TV and radio stations which are often provided free as a service to public schools.

Click here to read the rest of the report

Letter to BOE Re: Sale of District Building to Belmont Charter Operators

May 28, 2019

Dear President Wilkerson and Members of the Board,

We are writing to you about the impending sale of a District owned building to the operators of Belmont Charter School.

The first public disclosure of the proposed sale of 4030 Brown Street came at the May 16 Finance and Facilities Committee Meeting. Apparently the District had already entered into negotiations with Michael Karp and the other members of the Board of Belmont Charter. Belmont has made an offer of $2.8 million, of which the District would net about $1 million.

Belmont’s operators have told the District that it will be creating a non-profit that would buy the property and lease it to Belmont. Should the sale be approved, the Board of Education would be assisting this charter in creating yet another circular lease agreement, common in the charter sector, by which the charter’s financial partners can further insulate themselves from District oversight.

What we did not hear was any reason why the District should sell this public property.
Is it only because that is what Belmont’s operators want?

Click here to read the rest of this letter

Letter to the Board of Education Regarding a Violation of the Sunshine Act and the Board’s Response

After a disruption of the March 28, 2019 Action Meeting of the Board of Education, the Board members left the public auditorium and continued the meeting in a private room to vote on Agenda Items – a clear violation of the Sunshine Act. Below is our letter to the Board calling for them to reconvene to take a public vote on those Action Items.

 

April 1, 2019

Dear President Wilkerson and Members of the Board,

We write to you regarding the Board’s decision to hold a private meeting during its scheduled Action Meeting last Thursday.

After the meeting was interrupted by protestors, the Board voted to recess. Only four of the Action Items had been voted on. Over thirty public speakers had not yet been called. I left the auditorium after the recess was called and went down to the front desk to try to find out what was going on when I saw Board members walking toward the Board offices. I asked where the Board was going- twice- but received no response.

While waiting for the meeting to reconvene, we found out from someone in the audience, not from any District staff, that the Board was meeting in the Committee Room. A group of about ten to fifteen attendees, including APPS members came to that room and asked to be admitted. We were barred from entering by several school police officers who told us they had been directed not to let any member of the public in. We told them that no one in our group had taken part in the disruption of the meeting in the auditorium.

Click here to read the rest of the letter and the Board’s response

Commentary: To make big impact, new Philly school board must break with the past

SB 7-9-18

The following commentary by Lisa Haver was published by The Inquirer on September 11, 2018.

July 9 was a great day for the people of Philadelphia. The first meeting of the newly appointed Board of Education signaled the end of our long school governance nightmare.
The new nine-member board has made symbolic gestures toward breaking with the infamous past of the School Reform Commission, such as opening public spaces at district headquarters and refurbishing with some of the artwork confiscated from district schools and offices over 15 years ago.
The board has also begun to institute meaningful reforms, including establishing committees so that those with a stake in the district can engage in more meaningful participation beyond their allotted three-minute testimony, maybe even engage in dialogue with board members. The board even discussed resolutions before voting on them, a sight rarely seen during the 17-year reign of the SRC. 
But a true “break with the past,” as promised by former SRC chair and now board president Joyce Wilkerson at that first meeting, means a thorough rejection of the devastating agenda carried out by the SRC.
The SRC was imposed on the city for the purpose of carrying out the corporate, free-market agenda, the same privatization plan carried out in cities across the country: Close neighborhood public schools; expand charters, then make them almost impossible to close when they fail; and  force children to take standardized tests every year, then use those test scores to label them and their schools failing in order to justify charter-izing or closing them. Many decisions rubber-stamped by the SRC were made in the boardrooms of private foundations and nonprofits.  As it became increasingly clear that this “reform” did little more than destabilize the city’s public schools and neighborhoods, Philadelphians voted by a 2-1 margin for a nonbinding resolution to dissolve the SRC. 
The board must abandon the destructive spending priorities of the SRC and implement time-tested reforms.
In addition to lowering class size from 33 students, the district, now enjoying some semblance of financial stability, should bring back the remaining support staff laid off four years ago—reading specialists, non-teaching assistants, counselors, classroom aides for students with special needs. This board could signal its intention to improve the lives of our students by bringing back fully functioning school libraries. It’s a disgrace that there are fewer than 10 certified librarians in a district of more than 200 schools.
The board must bring back an equitable system.  A first step would be to abolish the district’s philanthropic Fund for the School District of Philadelphia, whose board meets in private to “help set funding priorities.” Schoolchildren should not be placed in the role of charity recipients. 
All funding decisions should be made in public, by the duly appointed Board of Education.  We should not maintain an undemocratic structure in which unknown individuals or corporations can decide which schools will be lucky enough to receive money for basic resources.
One of the biggest challenges the district faces is lack of funding from Harrisburg. The board should join with the Pennsylvania School Board Association to become more vocal advocates for fair funding. But we have to make sure that the dollars we get are spent on improving every classroom in every school. Outsourcing millions every year to consulting firms for teacher-training programs of questionable quality do nothing to improve education for our students. 
The board must invest in neighborhood schools and stop approving new charter schools. The district cannot afford them. Don’t renew charters that do not meet standards. Hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on schools that promised to educate children better than district schools but now want standards lowered when they have clearly failed to do so.
What local control will look like is up to the board members themselves.  They must be accountable, above all, to their constituents—the students, parents, educators, and community.