by Diane Payne
All nine board members were present for the second meeting of the new Board of Education (BOE). The Board consists of President Joyce Wilkerson, Vice-President Wayne Walker, Members Julia Danzy, Leticia Egea-Hinton, Mallory Fix-Lopez, Lee Huang, Maria McColgan, Chris McGinley, and Angela McIver. Six members of APPS were present, four of whom testified in support of public education. (To see the APPS members’ testimony, click here.)
This meeting began with a musical presentation by the Rush Arts Remixers Vocal Ensemble from the Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush High School. Their talent and presence were amazing and it was a delightful way to begin this meeting. Especially moving was their tribute to Aretha Franklin, who died earlier that day.
The Board has established four committees to guide their decision-making at monthly action meetings: Finance and Facilities (meeting monthly), Student Achievement and Support (meeting monthly), Policy (meeting quarterly), and District Partnerships and Community Engagement (meeting quarterly). President Wilkerson announced that the Finance and Facilities Committee will meet on September 6th, 10:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. at 440 N. Broad Street in the BOE offices; this committee will meet the first Thursday of each month. The Student Achievement and Support Committee will meet on the second Thursday of each month; the first meeting will be held on September 13th, 5:00 to 6:30 p.m. at the BOE offices. President Wilkerson encouraged public participation at these meetings. (All BOE information can be found on the SDP website at https://www.philasd.org/schoolboard/.)
Superintendent Hite’s remarks were characteristically upbeat and optimistic. He cited facility readiness, 600 newly hired teachers, and improved academic prognosis for this school year. BOE members must hold Dr. Hite to his promises as the SRC did not, and students, families, and community members must make sure the BOE knows about what is and is not happening at their schools. New teachers stay, and students succeed, when facilities are safe and healthy and when supports, services, and supplies are available and consistent. What Dr. Hite touts has not been the reality in many buildings, Mayfair and Strawberry Mansion being the most recent examples.
Speaker Questions Answered
Student speakers and speakers on Action Items (called resolutions under the SRC) were on the agenda first, followed by Board members discussing and voting on all Action Items. There were a total of 42 items on this agenda. The votes were still done in large blocks– just 6 votes for all 42 items. At the conclusion of the votes, registered speakers on all other topics were heard and the meeting then adjourned.
Breaking with the usual practice of the SRC, BOE members followed up on questions asked by speakers. Dr Hite brought Chief of Schools Shawn Bird up to answer questions raised about the situation at Strawberry Mansion. However, there was still no attempt to allow speakers to question his version of events. We sincerely hope the BOE members continue to seek answers raised by speakers.
There were a number of abstentions among the nine Board Members, some for professional connections to Temple and Penn. Lee Huang abstained more than once. We will have to keep a close eye on this at future meetings.
Students Speak Out on Toxic Buildings
Eight students from three different schools spoke on school safety and health conditions. Three were from Furness High School and addressed that school’s lead paint problem. Jerry Roseman, Director of Environmental Science & Occupational Safety & Health for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT), also testified on this topic. (You can view these testimonies and the entire BOE meeting here.)
The ongoing health crisis around asbestos, lead paint, mold, and more have become front and center news thanks to the efforts of the Healthy Schools Initiative and the Philadelphia Inquirer/Daily News series Toxic City which put these long standing problems in the public eye. It is imperative that families, students, and community advocates keep these grave concerns front and center. Kudos to the student speakers who are fighting for their right to a safe and healthy school environment.
Some BOE Speaker Engagement
The testimony of APPS member Diane Payne on Action Item A-2 (a no-cost contract amendment to hire up to 45 contract teachers for Emotional Support (ES) classrooms raised several questions about the services provided in these ES classrooms. SDP staff members have long lamented the shortcomings of ES classrooms as administered by the district. The current district ratio of 20 students to 1 teacher for the most vulnerable and difficult children should be universally agreed upon as too many students to successfully educate and accommodate. Supports such as a mandated classroom assistants and IEP mandated 1:1 supports are often lacking entirely or spotty. Students face bus rides away from their neighborhood with issues of bus safety and monitoring. Due to the difficult conditions, it is often hard to staff these classrooms, so contracts are entered into with outside companies to staff some classes with a “contract” teacher. Of course, this kind of outsourcing brings its own problems, as we have seen many times, most infamously the Source4Teachers substitute debacle.
After Payne’s testimony, President Wilkerson advised the audience that these kinds of questions are the very things the committees hope to vet before Action Meetings. BOE Member McGinley offered that “contracts” are one of the priorities that the Student Achievement and Support committee hopes to tackle.
Dare we hope that real public engagement and vetting of Action Items, rather than rubber-stamping every item on the list, could be a reality in the future?
BOE Voting on Action Items
Action Items BOE-1 through BOE-10 passed unanimously, except for BOE-10 from which BOE Member Lee Huang abstained.
Action Items A-1 through A-19 passed. Member Danzy abstained on A-6, Member Huang abstained on A-16, and Member McIver voted “No” on A-2.
McIver requested that the questions raised in the testimony on A-2 be addressed before the vote. Diane Castlebuono, Deputy Chief of the Office of Academic Support, and Lou Ballardine, Chief Talent Officer, were called up to provide information. Castlebuono noted that she did not have all the answers raised by Payne but would provide those answers in writing. When McIver asked for guidance on voting without all of the information, Wilkerson suggested a “No” vote if she harbors concerns. Given the unanswered concerns of other BOE members, it would have been more appropriate for Wilkerson to ask if the BOE wanted to table the motion.
Member Fix-Lopez questioned the trauma training in Item A-7; Karyn Lynch, Chief of Student Support Services, was called up to give information. Lynch said that the program was previously a voluntary, after school hours program. In this Action Item, it is a full program for all staff at six schools.
Fix-Lopez questioned Action Item A-16 which called for a two year lease for SLA Middle School. Chief Operating Officer Danielle Floyd came to the table to answer. She noted that Drexel University was going to provide a new building on the grounds of the demolished University City High for both Powell Elementary and SLA Middle school to co-locate. This building should be finished in two years.
Action Items B-1 through B-4 all passed unanimously. Action Items B-5 passed with 5 yes votes. Abstaining were McGinley, Wilkerson, Fix-Lopez, and Huang. Action Items B-6 through B-13 passed with 8 votes. Huang abstained. The question of whether Huang’s professional connections are going to interfere with his ability to serve may have to be addressed.
Strawberry Mansion High School
Three speakers testified about the District’s elimination of 9th grade at Strawberry Mansion High School (SMHS). Community voices have been decrying this plan imposed by the Hite administration in the absence of real community engagement. Chief of Schools Shawn Bird came to the table to assure the Board Members that 9th grade would resume in the 2019/2020 school year. The question that no one in the Hite administration will answer definitively: will SMHS remain a comprehensive high school? In addition, questions surrounding the over-age program administered by One Bright Ray and co-locating at SMHS were not answered. Lastly, no additional word on what other “vendors” will occupy the space. The community advocates are still fighting to save their neighborhood school and to highlight the systematic stripping of resources.
Ominous Change in Charter Policy
Member Hinton reminded the public about the upcoming Finance and Facilities meeting and invited the public to attend.
McIver highlighted priorities for the Student Achievement Committee inviting the public to attend. McGinley then advised the public that charter school issues will be addressed by this committee and that they have received an application from MaST to consolidate Mast I and Mast II into a single entity. The new lingo for this is Multiple Charter School Organization (MCSO). As McGinley noted, this is new territory and is covered under the PA DOE Charter School law. There currently are NO MCSOs in PA. Public comment will be accepted between August 17th and September 14th on this application. The Board will post all information around this process on the Charter School page of the SDP website and vote on it at the October meeting.
It should be noted that MaST is one of the Northeast charter schools that serve a predominantly white population. Their state-of-the-art Far Northeast school was built on a beautiful landscaped campus. MaST’s enrollment is 69% white, compared to a district average if 15%. MaST claims that 15% of their student population are students with Special Needs. However, news reports surface regularly that charter schools serve the lowest need categories of special ed students while traditional public schools serve students with the most severe needs. A speech diagnosis is very different than and emotional support diagnosis and requires much less support with more easily attained outcomes. https: Without knowing the composition of MaST’s Special Needs population, it is impossible to verify whether they mirror traditional public school populations.
MaST leverages its academic success to promote its expansion, but the siphoning of tax dollars into a model that is not scalable but serves an isolated, largely white part of the city should not be seen as one to be replicated.
In February, the SRC approved MaSTs’s new application for a third far Northeast site to open at One Crown Way on Roosevelt Blvd. Another isolated tract which consists of 40 acres and lovely buildings. It has a college campus feel and makes this whole venture seem more like a real estate deal than an effort to innovatively boost Philadelphia’s efforts to raise up its neediest students. More tax dollars funneled into a venture that will benefit families already on a positive trajectory. The district’s own evaluation of this request for the third school states: but the location itself is not within District’s identified areas of need for quality. But, that did not stop the defunct SRC from approving this third venture.
Now MaST is going to test the waters with this new MCSO scheme. Like all charter school ventures, one has to see the whole picture. Finding the salaries of highly paid CEOs and administrators takes an extensive search–why is this information not on the District website? Because of deliberate limitations in the PA charter law, understanding the real estate deals, related management company contracts, board affiliations, and political connections is almost impossible. Why? It is OUR TAX DOLLARS pouring into this and all charter school ventures.
The state’s Charter School law is set up to protect the wild west of charter schools. It remains to be seen how this new board navigates these murky waters. Every tax dollar funneled into a charter school is hurting students in neighborhood public schools.
Another Break from the Past
In an apparent additional step toward transparency, the BOE has posted summaries of the contracts on the agenda to be approved. They are available to view online as part of the agenda materials and in hard copy at the meeting.
The BOE approved $18,438,928 in spending and accepted $637,350 in grants and donations. We must continue to be wary of the dangers of treating public schools as charities. More and more strings and policy commitments are attached.
Next BOE Meeting
The next BOE meeting is scheduled for September 20, 2018 at 5:00 p.m. in the second floor auditorium at 440 N. Broad Street. In another change of policy, those who are interested in speaking at the upcoming Action Meeting of the Board of Education should submit the speaker request form or call (215) 400-5959 by Tuesday, September 18 at 5:00 p.m.