Ears on the Board of Education: April 22, 2021

by Lisa Haver and Lynda Rubin

The Board continued its repressive speaker policy by excluding four APPS members from speaking at this meeting. Their topics were also excluded. The sign-up window opened at 5 PM Monday and closed just a few hours later, so it is likely that many other members of the public were not heard.  Education activists who can only speak every other month are now limited to an average of one minute per month to speak before the Board votes on items representing hundreds of millions of dollars.  

APPS did achieve some victories.  The Board voted to withdraw the Item to grant KIPP Charters several amendments including enrollment expansion.  APPS had written a letter outlining the many issues, beginning with the various names of the school on different websites, asking that the Item be withdrawn until the facts were sorted out by the CSO and presented for public scrutiny, including the reasons why the CSO was recommending that KIPP’s entire request be granted. APPS had also communicated to the Board in written testimony, letters and research reports about why they should vote to proceed with the non-renewals of Universal Bluford and Daroff charter schools. The Board voted for non-renewal.  

This 5 ½ hour Action Meeting convened at 5:35 and adjourned at 11:06.  The Goals and Guardrails data analysis consumed 90 minutes. In addition, the Board deliberated for 30 minutes on one item.  

Eight  of the Board members were present for the entire meeting.  Maria McColgan joined the meeting at 9:30 PM; she did not take part in any of the voting, as Board rules stipulate. 

Board Questions Hite on Assessment Contracts

Hite announced that this year’s seniors will have in-person, outdoor graduation ceremonies and that the District will  provide free caps and gowns for each student. Hite noted that only 1% of students tested positive for COVID since their return to buildings.  That figure would be more meaningful if he converted that percentage to the number of actual students it represents.  Hite stated that all 3-5 grades and 6-8 with special needs will be eligible to return to schools on April 26 and that 32% of eligible students have returned. Hite then spoke in favor of Action Item #29 (Contracts with various vendors for Online Courses and Adaptive Interventions for $15,000,000), whose current contract ends at June 30. Hite brought in two principals for a presentation, not listed on the agenda, in support of the Item.  Egea-Hinton noted that at the District’s Budget meeting, several District educators asked for teaching and support staff in every school.  Hite stated, in answer to Fix Lopez’s question that he plans to have all schools open for five days a week in Fall 2021.  Hite confirmed that PSSA’s will not be used as criteria for enrollment in Special Admit Schools this Fall. Hite also stated that there will be a dramatic increase in “advanced placement” openings.  In response to Thompson’s question about Fall in-school enrollment, Hite said that some students may want to remain virtual and that “we’re working on a plan.” Hite did say that 2021-2022 PSSAs and Keystones will be delayed until after September 30th.

Board members’ reiterated many of the questions raised by principals and other educators about the need for more administrative and support staff in schools when asking about Action Item 6 (Contract with Renaissance and Illuminate Education – K-12 Assessments for $6,500,000). McIver stated that the District needs more teachers than data and assessments. Fix Lopez, noting that principals had reached out to the Board on staff needs over programs and assessments, asked Hite why this item was up for a vote. Hite replied that Star AimsWeb contracts are expiring, and that programs are being extended to all K-12 grades (with expansion into K-5) for Math, Reading and Social Emotional support.  Wilkerson  asked whether the decision on Item 6 could be delayed. Hite agreed to withdraw the Item, but the Board never actually took a vote to table the Item. 

Speaker Policy Amended Again Without Public Vote

Committee Chair Reginald Streater reported on the policies discussed at the April 15 Policy Committee quarterly meeting. Those policies will be voted on by the full Board after two consecutive reviews. Streater then announced that in response to a request made by Student Representative Kayleisha Diaz at the Policy committee meeting, the Board would be allowing five more students to testify at Action meetings, for a total of fifteen.  He also said the Board would be allowing student speakers a full three minutes, although that was not part of Ms. Diaz’s request.  Streater did not indicate where this was decided or by whom.  The Board took no vote on the policy changes, another violation of the PA Sunshine Act.  As UrbEd pointed out on twitter, there are over 200,000 students in the District. APPS urges the Student Representatives not to endorse the silencing of students, their families, and their communities. 

Hearing Examiner Outlines Reasons for Universal Non-Renewal Recommendation

When the District decides to close neighborhood public schools, no hearing of any kind is required.  The PA Charter Law, however, mandates legal hearings as just one part of an extensive and costly  process prior to revoking any charter.  Hearing Examiner Rudy Garcia summarized the “ample evidence”  in the report he filed after presiding over the 2-week long hearings, including ongoing deficiencies in academics, organization and finances.  Among those enumerated by Garcia: 

  • Failure of Universal to provide legally required child-abuse clearances
  • Universal’s misuse of taxpayer funds by sharing funds among schools 
  • Low academic performance compared to District schools, charter schools, and similar schools 

Garcia pointed out that the CSO had recommended non-renewal for Bluford  in 2015, but it was renewed after Universal agreed to surrender its charter if it failed to fulfill the necessary conditions. Garcia said that allowing Universal to continue to operate these schools would be “cheating the kids”. Board Member Egea-Hinton, before voting for non-renewal, said that “we forget” that the Renaissance charters were supposed to improve the schools. In this case, Universal failed to do so

Goals and Guardrails Promote Teaching to the Test

After the student speakers but before the others, the Board engaged in 90 minutes of data analysis. This intense focus on data shows the Board’s lack of a genuine understanding of different learning styles among students, as well as the pace at which different students learn.  Students with identified special needs and English Language beginners require additional specific supports to help them advance. The increasing stress experienced by COVID isolation and family issues will be compounded by testing anxiety and how test results will affect their future opportunities. Students judge themselves, often finding themselves inadequate, when confronted with test scores.  The Board’s message to educators and students every month: Make sure you get those test scores up. Not much different from the Ackerman agenda, which led to a highly publicized cheating scandal–maybe with a kinder, more gentler facade. The Board and Administration speak about students’ social/emotional needs when pushing the reopening of schools, but not during the data analysis based on standardized test scores. Schools are labeled “on-track”  or “off-track” solely based on these scores. Schools should promote a love of learning, diversity of learning, sharing of ideas–not a race to higher standardized test scores. 

Board Erects More Barriers to Public Speaking

The Board barred four APPS members from speaking. There is no way to know how many others tried to sign up but were denied. The Board allowed eight people to speak in support of Universal and against the non-renewals; they allowed none to speak on the other side. The Board allowed four people to speak on behalf of KIPP in its quest to expand its enrollment and move to another location; they allowed none to speak on the other side. One of the first parents to speak told the Board that its 2-minute limit was “super-ableist”. Another told the Board that “…it is disrespectful to make parents wait for four hours to speak for two minutes.” 

Teachers, both current and retired, including APPS members Ilene Poses, Zoe Rooney, Barbara Dowdall, spoke about the need for libraries and fewer outsourced on-line programs. Many current school staff and a University faculty member spoke about school conditions, the lack of  racial equity and the need for additional personnel, as outlined by CASA principals, in each school paid for by the District to promote learning and support school climate.

Unfortunately, seven speakers were cut off mid-sentence and five others were not able to remain on line for four hours. Speakers cannot see the countdown clock because the warning light obscures the numbers. In addition, the yellow warning light does not come on at 30 seconds as the Board tells everyone but at 15 seconds. 

Board Votes Non-Renewal for Two Universal Charters

The voting portion of the agenda began at 9:55 PM, but actual voting began 10:47. Over thirty minutes were spent to discuss one Item. President Wilkerson moved to withdraw Item 4, the KIPP amendment request; the motion passed unanimously. Wilkerson did not say when the Board would vote on that Item. APPS had raised several inconsistencies in our letter to the Board, and we expect that the Board will correct all of these and more importantly, provide reasons for why any part of the request would be granted. 

The Board approved total spending of  $ 1,000,416,696–about ⅓ of total annual budget–at this meeting. 

Item 4, KIPP Amendment Request: Withdrawn.

Items 2 and 3, Board Policies:  Review only; no vote taken.  

Item 6, Contracts with Renaissance and Illuminate Education:  No vote taken. After some deliberation, Hite agreed to withdraw. However, Board did not take necessary vote to table the Item. 

Item 10, Termination of Professional Employee:  Withdrawn. 

Item 29, Contracts with Various Vendors for Online Assessments: after 30 minutes of deliberation, failed to pass by vote of 6-1-1, with Wilkerson dissenting and Streater abstaining. 

Item 30, Non-renewal of Universal Bluford Charter:  Passed 5-2 with Thompson and Salley dissenting. McColgan and McIver were absent. 

Item 31, Non-renewal of Universal Daroff Charter: Same as Item 30. 

 Consent Agenda

Items 7 through 9: Passed unanimously. 

Items 1,5, and 11 through 28:  Passed unanimously.    

The meeting adjourned at 11: 06 PM.