Ears on the Board of Education: April 30, 2020

by Diane Payne

April brought the Board’s second remote Action Meeting.  There were moments of technical difficulty which took several tries to fix–a reminder of how difficult online learning is for everyone involved.  Online learning is the mask we need during this crisis. It is not the cure.

Tributes to Resigning Board Members

All nine Board members attended, as did the two student representatives and Superintendent Hite.  Minutes of the March Action Meeting were approved. President Joyce Wilkerson opened her remarks with a notice that Action Item 62 had been added to the agenda the day before. This Item calls on the state and federal governments to maintain school funding and not to use the Covid-19 crisis as justification for slashing funding to schools that have suffered for years from inadequate funding.  Per the 2016 legal settlement between APPS and the District regarding walk-on Items, anyone who wished to speak was invited to sign up before the voting began via email or phone. Wilkerson thanked the District’s principals in recognition of the May 1 Principal Appreciation Day, and she thanked teachers in anticipation of Teacher Appreciation Day the following week.  She noted the Board would appear at City Council hearings as Board of Education candidates on Friday, May 1. Wilkerson bid farewell to Wayne Walker and Chris McGinley, both attending their last meeting as Board members. Maria McColgan read a tribute to Walker, and Angela McIver read one to McGinley.  Both Walker and McGinley thanked the Board members and the public they served.   Wilkerson concluded her remarks by urging members of  the public to join the Board in advocating for all levels of government to maintain school funding.

[Video of this meeting can be viewed on the District website.  Agendas and PowerPoints can also be viewed by going to the Board’s meeting materials page.]

Seven members of APPS spoke in defense of public education.  Remarks can be viewed on the APPS website.   Several members of the East Falls community returned to testify against a proposal to allow Laboratory Charter School to move into that neighborhood.

Dr. Hite Thanks District Employees                                                                 

Hite’s remarks began with a power-point “Thank you” to District staff.  Hite addressed continuity of education issues, noting that report card grades will be calculated as the average of the three marking periods. Student grades can go up or remain the same, but they cannot go down. Teachers will be required to provide three hours of synchronous and asynchronous instruction; that is, live teaching and flexible “office hours”.  (Chromebook distribution will continue at 440 and at Fitzpatrick Elementary in the Far Northeast on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 9:00 to 1:00.  There is no plan yet for Chromebook collection, although seniors must return their devices).  Programs have been put into place to support students with special needs, English language learners, and those experiencing homelessness.

Hite addressed concerns, raised by public speakers and  by Board members at the April Committee meeting, about the District’s failure to enforce Policy 252 regarding protection of transgender and non-binary students. If the District identifies the student’s chosen name/pronouns on Chromebook learning sites, but the student does not want this information shared at home, how can the student be protected?  Hite told Board members that his administration is conferring with districts who have had success in this area. However, as LBGTQ advocate and District teacher Maddie Lubbert testified, the District has failed to enforce Policy 252 for the past four years; this crisis has simply illuminated that.

Hite noted that only schools providing laptop distribution and meal preparedness are open, along with any under construction. Hite indicated that the Comprehensive School Planning Review (CSPR) would resume in the Fall, but he gave no indication that it would involve more than the minimum public outreach already provided. Many questions remain about this high-stakes mission.  Hite said that online feedback surveys for Cycle One schools will be sent out in May.  There is too much at stake for a “make-do” effort around community engagement, particularly when our communities are struggling to cope with the Covid-19 crisis.  The public must remain very watchful and wary.

Hite finished by reporting that the District is close to a final plan on how to honor graduating seniors.

In answer to a question from one Board member, Hite said that District staff would be able to retrieve their belongings, “as soon as it is safe”, from the schools they left on March 13 with no knowledge that schools would not reopen. Board member McColgan asked whether charter schools are carrying out the same level of instruction that District teachers are. Hite’s answer, that individual charter schools were carrying out their own programs, indicated that the District has as much control over charters in this area as they have in most others. Questions raised by APPS members months ago about whether charter operators were carrying out asbestos and lead abatements have gone unanswered.

Committee Reports                                                                                            

The Finance and Facilities Committee and the Student Achievement and Support Committees held concurrent meetings on April 23, 2020. [ Find APPS reports for those meetings here.]  Maria McColgan had raised concerns at the Student Achievement Committee about the “harshness” of the language in the Resolution on Charter School Reform, as outlined in Action Item 2.  Committee Co-chair McGinley noted that the language had already been modified “for tone”.  McColgan did not acknowledge the harshness of the annual increase in charter allotments and the ensuing austerity in public schools.  Having public charter renewal hearings, as APPS continues to demand, would present an opportunity to examine the bloated administrative budgets of charter schools, in particular those recommended for renewal despite low academic and financial ratings.

Community Partnership Committee Co-chair Fix Lopez read a prepared statement from a member of the Parent and Community Advisory Council, a subcommittee whose meetings are not posted on the District website.  Although Fix Lopez verbally identified the report’s author, once again the name did not appear on the agenda.  APPS members have asked for months why the reporters from this subcommittee cannot be identified on the meeting agenda. The Committee itself has not carried out its commitment to engage the community, as its last meeting was held in April 2019. The Committee seems to define  “engagement” as bringing in a series of subcommittee members with anecdotal third-hand reports from unidentified community members. Deflecting responsibility to others does not constitute community engagement.      Student Representative Imere Williams read the student representatives report, again noting the losses experienced by the outgoing senior class.

Board Renews Substandard Charters                                                             

APPS consistently testifies and reports on the problems with a charter school system that lacks true oversight, accountability, and  transparency.  Money paid to charter schools for high CEO salaries, questionable special education spending, and circular real estate arrangements leave fewer resources for public school students in underfunded, often toxic schools.   The Charter Schools approved for 5-year renewals at this meeting include: Laboratory Charter (Item 4) Northwood Charter (Item 6), People for People Charter  (Item 7), Imhotep Charter (Item 57).  Dr. Hite, Superintendent of 210 schools, is paid $311,000; compare that to the compensation paid to the CEOS overseeing one charter school.  Because charter schools are not obligated to report the salaries of their administrations and staff, as public schools are, this information can only be found by finding the most recent IRS 990 form (in this case, 2018):

  • Laboratory Charter CEO:  $116,000
  • Northwood Academy CEO:  $158,809
  • People for People: No Salaries listed on the 990, but a firm from Texas is listed as CEO services at $184,500
  • Imhotep CEO:  $159,658

Community Charter School’s renewal, including an amendment seeking a 100-seat increase, was withdrawn without explanation this month; no date was given for a new renewal date.  The SPR Achievement scores for both the K-8 and the high school have been in the Intervene category (the lowest of 4 categories)  for the past three years.  Yet the Charter Schools Office reports that they are “approaching standards”, which is not the same as actually reaching the standards.  Community Charter’s CEO salary/compensation in 2018 was  $248,736.   This school has landed in the lowest academic category for the last 3 years, but seeks not only a 5-year renewal but a 100-seat enrollment increase–and the Board’s Charter Schools Office has recommended that they be granted both. The District allocates  $17, 195, 576  every year to Community; a 5-year renewal will cost taxpayers a minimum of  $85, 977,880. 

The last Charter School Items on the agenda proposed non-renewal for two Universal charter schools, Daroff and Blueford, both Renaissance charter schools.   Renaissance Charters were the schools identified as at the bottom of District Schools and handed over to charter operators to “turn them around.” Research done by APPS, the PA Auditor General, the City Controller’s Office, and the office of Councilmember Helen Gym, among others,  shows unequivocally that the Renaissance program has been a colossal failure.  Officials of  Universal corporation, founded by Philadelphia  music mogul Kenny Gamble, have recently  been indicted on federal bribery charges, along with Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson and his wife, Dawn Chavous, a charter school lobbyist.

The  990 information lists  Bluford’s principal salary at $154,198.  It also shows that Universal Education was paid for management services totaling $713,750 for this one school.   Daroff had no CEO or principal salaries listed on the 990;  it does list two related company management fees for Universal Education at $349,292 and Universal Community Homes at $209,575. Note the separate charter school and management company entities.  Both Bluford and Daroff  SPR Achievement scores have consistently been in the Intervene category.  Both schools also failed to meet Organizational and Financial standards on the charter renewal evaluation.  The PA Charter Law has ensured that trying to close a failing charter school will be an expensive, drawn-out legal process with no assurance of actual revocation at the end.    A decision made by the Board, even after a thorough procedure, can be easily turned over by the state’s Charter Appeal Board.

Board Kills Resolution to End Renaissance Charter Program               

Outgoing Board member Chris McGinley, a consistent critic of the Renaissance program,  made a motion just prior to the Universal Items votes that the Board pass a resolution  to officially end the Renaissance School initiative.  Since the 2015-16 Wister debacle, Hite has not entered any school into the Renaissance program. He has instead instituted a number of initiatives resulting in the disruption of neighborhood schools, from Redesign Schools to Transformation Schools to Internal Turnaround Schools. The most recent is the System of Great Schools, which can result in permanent closure of neighborhood schools.   This walk-on resolution generated discussion about the need for the Board to understand all possible ramifications.  President Wilkerson effectively killed the motion, citing concerns including possible violation of the Sunshine Act. The irony here is that Wilkerson actually violated not only the Sunshine Act but the 2016 legal settlement between the District and APPS regarding the District’s pattern of violations of that law.  That settlement stipulates that the District allow any member of the public to sign up to speak on a walk-on Item during the meeting.  APPS member Lisa Haver communicated to the Board via twitter, in several tweets, that she wished to sign up to speak on McGinley’s resolution. (The Board monitors its twitter account throughout the meeting.)  District Counsel Lynn Rauch recommended the Item be withdrawn, but McGinley resisited, saying that without a specific time frame it would be forgotten.  Fix Lopez, supporting Wilkerson’s moves to kill the resolution,  promised to make sure that it came up for a vote within six months.  Both Wilkerson and Hite framed the issue as another policy issue, ignoring the fact that it has been the most expensive and disastrous undertaking in District history. McColgan then reiterated the notion that the Renaissance program should be relegated to the Policy Committee, noting that there probably was not time to add these policies to the May Policy committee meeting and that the next meeting was in August.  This discussion ended with McGinley withdrawing his walk-on resolution to end the Renaissance Charter School initiative but without a Board vote on an amendment to the resolution to bring it up in a time certain.  It was withdrawn with only verbal promises to re-introduce by June or August or October. Wilkerson had no right to kill the Item. Vague concerns about public engagement, when you don’t even check to see whether the public wants to speak, do not justify violating the law and the Board’s by-laws.

Votes on Action Items                                              

At every meeting in which the Board votes on charter issues, APPS members stand and object to the Board’s repeated violations of the Sunshine Act.  All of these votes are in effect taken in secret, as the public does not see the full text of the Items. President Wilkerson read the APPS statement per our request, sent in a letter to the Board the day before the meeting.

The Board’s usual block voting is confusing when physically present in the room; it’s even worse during remote meetings.  Item 1 was withdrawn by request of Dr. Hite.  This Item, a renewal of one passed in March, entrusted “war powers” to the Superintendent to act on matters related to the Covid-19 crisis without Board approval or public scrutiny.

Item 5, Community Charter School Renewal and Amendment for enrollment increase was withdrawn because Community Charter officials notified the CSO that it had decided not to agree to the conditions. The District has left it up to the charter schools to decide on these matters; until then, the District extends the present charter with no interruption in funding.

Items 2, 3, 10-12, 17-21, 23-26, 28-56, 59-62:  all passed.  Fix Lopez and Huang abstained on Item 52 , and Huang abstained on Items 40 and 43.

Item 4, Laboratory Charter 5-year renewal, location change, and enrollment expansion, passed 5-4. Danzy, McIver, McColgan, Walker, and Wilkerson voted Yes; McGinley, Fix Lopez, Hinton and Huang voted No.  Wilkerson gave an extensive statement about her longtime residence in the neighborhood and her concerns as an active member of the local community association before accepting the CSO recommendation and voting in favor of the charter school.  She recognized the concerns regarding traffic congestion at 3300 Henry Avenue where the 6-8 school would relocate but said that due to the grades of this school many of the students would take public transportation.  Although public transportation does mitigate traffic, when you are adding 475 students plus staff, you are in fact increasing traffic in that area.  Parents will still pick up their children, staff will drive to school, and buses will increase.  Wilkerson also mentioned that the nearby public school, Mifflin Elementary, will not need to worry about competition because Laboratory will be a middle school.  But Mifflin is a K-8 school.  In addition to noting Laboratory’s  low Achievement scores in the Watch SPR category,  the CSO report said this about the charter’s finances:

“While the budgeted revenues and expenditures for each of the next five years appear to be reasonable projections, concerns remain about the Charter School’s financial health, particularly the ability to maintain sufficient cash flows. The Charter School has a projected deficit of $178,137 for SY 2019-20, and had a   negative fund balance and only 17 days cash on hand at June 30, 2019. With only very small  surpluses (less than 1% in Years 1 and 3, less than 2% in Year 4, and less than 3% in Years 2 and 5) projected for each year included in the budget projections, the Charter School is extremely vulnerable to even small unanticipated increases to expenses or losses of revenue, and cash flow could be a significant concern in at least the next two to three years.  No documents regarding financing were provided with the application.”

Several community members testified against this move at several recent Board meetings. They presented a petition against the move to the Board. All to no avail.  The Board’s vote on this reminded the community that charter interests trump community wishes, just as they did with the SRC. 

Item 6, Northwood Charter Renewal: Passed unanimously.

Item 7, People for People Charter Renewal:  Passed 5-2-2.  Huang and Wilkerson abstained.  Fix Lopez and McGinley voted No.

Item 8, Universal Bluford non-renewal: Approved 8-1, with Danzy dissenting.

Item 9, Universal Daroff non-renewal:  Approved unanimously.

Item 57, Imhotep Institute Charter renewal:  Passed 7-2, with Fix Lopez and McGinley dissenting.

Item 13, $600,000 for The Fund for the School District of Philadelphia:  Passed 7-1, with McGinley dissenting.  The Fund is a non-profit whose Board, at its private meetings,  decides on which public schools should receive funding from its donors.

McGinley said at both this meeting and the Committee meeting that now, facing almost certain budget cuts, is not the time for the District to be reimbursing the Fund for administrative costs.  Organizations like the Fund depend on donations from large corporations and foundations who are the major funders of corporate disruption.   Board members (with some exceptions, notably McGinley) continue to vote as if  this is “free money” despite the documentation, year after year, that in the long run this money has cost our public schools dearly.

Items 14 and15: Passed unanimously.

Items 22 and 27, $18 million + for contracts for classroom modernization, generated discussion about District capacity and economic uncertainty, as it did at the committee meeting, but passed 6-3, with Fix Lopez, McIver, and McGinley dissenting.

The Board meeting concluded, and the Intermediate Unit meeting was held. All four Items on that agenda passed.