Ears on the Board of Education: August 20, 2020

by Diane Payne

The Office of the Inspector General, a purportedly independent office within the District, issued its final report on the botched construction project at Benjamin Franklin High School undertaken for the purpose of co-locating Science Leadership Academy (SLA).  

The OIG report paints a picture of the incompetence of Superintendent Hite and his staff from the planning of the project to its completion. It reveals the shocking disregard for the health and safety of the students and staff at Ben Franklin. It shows how the Hite administration ignored the fears of parents and educators. The Board’s response to the scandal?  Expressions of concern and disappointment, but not one word about accountability. 

On the heels of the Ben Franklin/SLA fiasco last year came the rolling school closures due to asbestos issues, with staff and parents repeatedly raising many of the same concerns documented in the OIG report.  Superintendent Hite claims that the District will learn from these experiences, but the appointed Board of Education members seem to subscribe to Einstein’s definition of crazy: doing the same thing and expecting different results. Board members allowed Hite to file the Ben Franklin/SLA scandal under “a teachable moment”, as he rolls along to the next school closure, lack of communication, and mishandling of another crisis.  

Not a word was uttered by Hite nor any Board member about the second scandal of the week: the District administrator simultaneously holding full-time, high-level posts in both Philadelphia and Columbus, Ohio. Tracy Ocasio was hired by the District in May at $140,000 as Deputy Chief of Curriculum and Instruction while being paid $152,000 as Columbus’ Chief Academic Officer.  Although personnel matters cannot be discussed in most cases,  when information like this is splashed across the papers some sort of reckoning should be expected from the Hite administration. Who conducted the background check–if any?   

Board Gives Hite A Pass on Ben Franklin/SLA Scandal

After last week’s bungled “hybrid” committee meeting, in which Board Members were present at District headquarters while the public watched remotely,  this Action meeting was again fully remote. Members of the public who watched and testified were subject to audio and technical malfunctions throughout the Committee meeting; people waiting to testify were disconnected. All eight Board members attended this meeting. Vice-president Leticia Egea-Hinton announced that she would be presiding because it was President Joyce Wilkerson’s birthday. Is this really a thing?  Does it say anything in the Board by-laws about being absolved of duties on birthdays? The move did get Wilkerson out of having to make her usual opening remarks, which would have had to address the Ben Franklin/SLA scandal.   

Egea-Hinton began to read without saying whether it was her statement or made on behalf of the entire Board. The statement was laced with the usual platitudes about learning from mistakes.  What the Board statement lacked was any call for accountability.  This project’s cost ballooned five-fold, from $10 million to $50 million; the health and well-being of staff and students were adversely affected;  and Dr. Hite and his staff knowingly withheld information from the public and the governing body of the District. The students at Benjamin Franklin, mostly students of color, were subjected to toxic substances, thick construction dust, noise, and an unhealthy learning environment for an entire school year. Only after the SLA students, a more privileged student body, moved in did the Hite administration take action. The mostly Black students at Ben Franklin were harmed both physically and emotionally–while the District continued to make statements about moving toward anti-racism in both curriculum and professional relationships.  It is hard to understand how the Board can allow Hite, one of the highest paid superintendents in the country, to skate on this.  The OIG report lays out a story of incompetence, mismanagement, and disregard for the safety of students and staff. APPS has called on the Board to ask for Hite’s resignation and the resignations of all involved in this scandal.  A teacher who knowingly harmed a student would be fired. The same should be true of District employees at all levels.  

Hite “Regrets” His Handling of Ben Franklin/SLA Fiasco

Hite began his presentation with his brief remarks about the OIG report. He offered his regrets for how the project was handled, and promised that lessons would be learned.  He assured the Board that the incident provided him with a “teachable moment”. 

Hite then moved onto his main topic,  school reopening updates.  (This entire meeting along with the accompanying PowerPoints can be viewed on the District web page.  

Hite noted six milestones–Digital Enablement, Academics, Staff Coverage, Building Readiness, People Preparedness, and School Operational Readiness–that the District is using to determine school readiness; each milestone receives green, yellow, or red markers of readiness.  Five of the six milestones were listed in Green, with staff coverage in Yellow due to 115 cleaning staff vacancies.  It was confusing to see milestones designated Green even though many components within the milestone were not listed as ready.  Hite did not say whether there are again long lines for Chromebooks, as there were last Spring, nor did he mention how readily parents and staff could get answers from District staff when they run into roadblocks. The issue of ventilation did not get a full airing, so we do not have a number for how many buildings have operable windows.  Numbers, hotlines, and District plans on paper  sound great, but will they be adequate?  None of the Board members asked for updates on these issues. 

After the school reopening presentation, Hite addressed the contract for KJR Consulting (Action Item 1). Numerous staff and community members testified against the District’s paying KJR $700,000 to provide professional development to central office staff, including $150,000 dollars for anti-racism training.  KJR has no reported expertise or experience in anti-racist training; on the other hand, district educators from the Melanated Educators Collective (MEC) and the Racial Justice Organizing Committee (RJOC) have been doing this work for the last four years for free while repeatedly urging the District to fully commit to this vision. Using District educators on a volunteer basis, telling them there was no money in the budget to pay them, then proposing a $700,000 contract for a consulting firm–offers one more window into the Hite administration’s lip service to respecting educators.  Hite told the Board that since the Committee meeting, the $150,000 for the anti-racist component had been withdrawn. That left $500,000 for more central office training.   

At the conclusion of the presentation, the floor was opened up for Board questions. Wilkerson began by thanking Hite for his updated school reopening plan and the user-friendly format.  Board Member Danzy then thanked Hite for the important work he has done for this plan.  Neither mentioned the  OIG report.  The six remaining Board members read statements or asked questions about the OIG report. Other than expressing disappointment or possible lack of trust in the future, no Board member demanded accountability from Hite. Huang’s questioning of Hite veered on the apologetic.  The exchanges did little more than provide an opportunity for Hite to offer his mea culpa and promise to learn from it.  No one asked how the cost of the project managed to balloon five-fold over its original cost, or why the Hite administration ignored concerns from parents at both schools. No one asked why construction continued even after students and staff had to be rushed to hospitals–or why construction only stopped after the SLA students arrived.  But the truth is that none of those students will ever get those two years back. In addition, the students and staff who may have escaped injury in that year may develop health issues in the future. 

 Hite gets a pass again.  A few stern words, promises to do better, then business as usual. This Board should be asking for Hite’s resignation

Committee Reports

The Joint Meeting of the Finance & Facility (F&F) and Student Achievement (SA) Committees, held on August 13,  can be viewed on the District website.  Read the APPS report on this committee here. 

As part of the F&F report, Julia Danzy read into the record a letter from Mayor Kenney and Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson in support of Action Item 9, the KOZ zone recommendation for the new owners of the Energy Solutions site in South Philadelphia.  This site was recently purchased by Chicago-based Hilco Redevelopment Partners.  Many community members spoke and provided written testimony against this approval. (The Board of Education must approve a KOZ designation in order for the designation to move forward.) 

Angela McIver presented the SA report which highlighted the Hite reopening plan.

Speakers on Action Items

Despite objections made by APPS and other community members, the Board again hid behind the full-screen countdown clock for the entirety of the public speakers’ portion.  For hours, members of the public were unable to see the Board.  This deliberate deflection demonstrates a lack of respect for members of the public who wait to address them on items of crucial concern. It also violates, at the least, the spirit of the PA Sunshine Act enacted to ensure the public’s right to be meaningfully included in government business. 

Five members of APPS spoke in defense of public education.  Lisa Haver, on behalf of APPS members, called for the Board to ask for Superintendent Hite’s resignation in light of the scathing OIG report.

Board Approves KJR Contract, Denies KOZ 

Action Item 1, KJR Consulting contract: Passed 5-3, with Akbar, Fix Lopez, and McIver dissenting. 

Action Items 2, 3, 4: Passed unanimously.

Action Item 9, KOZ zone: More discussion on this Item. (The presiding officer, whether Wilkerson or whoever may be sitting in for her, should conduct meetings according to the rules of Parliamentary procedure: A motion is made, then seconded, discussion takes place, discussion is closed, roll-call vote taken.) The Board actually had a Deputy Mayor and a Hilco representative on the line so that both could be ready to do on-the-spot lobbying for Hilco during the voting. There was no digital clock limiting their time.  Wilkerson’s advice to fellow Board Members was to take direction from City officials since they have the “expertise” on the matter. However, if it is the responsibility  of the Board to pass KOZ matters, it is also the responsibility  of the Board to make informed and independent decisions.  It is disturbing to see the Board President shirk this duty and advise others to do the same. The  4-3 vote, with one abstention, meant the Item failed to pass.  Board Members Akbar, Fix Lopez, and McIver voted No.  Member Huang abstained, but failed to explain why:  that his firm, Econsult, has worked on the HILCO project.  That resulted in a 4-4 vote; in this case, five votes are needed to pass.

The Board is still short one member as Mayor Kenney has failed to replace Chris McGinley, who resigned in April.  Since the Mayor submitted a letter recommending approval of this KOZ site, one could speculate this will increase the likelihood of a new Board Member appointment.  

Action Item 26, Resolution for Black Lives Matter at School:  Passed unanimously.  McColgan said that she supported the idea but moved to table the resolution to allow for more “robust discussion”.  Her motion to table received no second.  McColgan’s remarks indicate a lack of understanding about the work of anti-racism, as well as a lack of understanding about who should take the lead for this effort.  At time marker 3:08:34 in the video of this meeting, McColgan says: “My other worry.  I worry about terms.  Negative terms, not like bad, meaning what we want as opposed to what we don’t want.  Like anti-racism, I want more than that.  I don’t know what the opposite of anti-racist is…multiracial, inclusive, sensitive to everyone, equity…”    Ibram X. Kendi’s important book How to be an Anti-racist explains on page 9 that the opposite of “racist” isn’t “not racist”.  It is “anti-racist.” It is crucial for Board Members to understand what anti-racist work means. McColgan may be well intentioned.  But she fails to understand the meaning behind dismissing the term “anti-racist” as not enough.  And learning to take the lead from Black people already doing this work is crucial for a white person in a seat of power.  McColgan also questioned Dr. Hite about staff input.  She has been present on every occasion when staff and  principals rallied for this effort with their three allotted minutes to speak.  As Angela McIver asked, how are passing this resolution and continuing robust discussion mutually exclusive? 

Action Items 5-13 and 15-25 (Action Item 14 was withdrawn by staff and included in Item 15): passed.  Huang abstained from Items 8, 13, and 24. 

Speakers on General Topics 

Once again, the Board became invisible as speakers addressed general topics.  Many Paraprofessionals waited hours to speak about their working conditions, salary struggles, and feelings of invisibility during their contract negotiations. 

CASA President Robin Cooper told the Board once again that packaged administration PowerPoints do not honestly reflect the state of the District, as far as principals can see.   The Hite administration relies on surveys to determine opinions of staff, students, and families.  But as Cooper pointed out, the surveys often only offer choices preferred by administration; they do not provide room for others.  The survey initially distributed to principals did not include the remote learning choice.  Cooper also addressed the second scandal of the week–the administration’s  virtual learning director, Tracy Ocasio,  held simultaneous positions in Philadelphia and Columbus, Ohio until exposed by local press.  Cooper noted that the lack of a reopening Plan B has now placed her members in the dangerous position of having to enter buildings, move supplies, and have members of 32BJ (custodians and building engineers)  return to work in unsafe conditions–all while struggling to meet the demands of remote learning.  Cooper noted the disastrous results when the Hite administration, ignoring the pleas of parents and educators, refused to formulate any Plan B for the Ben Franklin/SLA project. 

The meeting adjourned after five hours. The next Board Policy Committee meeting is scheduled for September 3rd at 1:00 PM. The Joint Committee is scheduled for 4 PM  the same day.  The next Action Meeting is scheduled for September 17th at 5:00 p.m.