Ears on the Board of Education: December 12, 2019

Lisa's Lump of Coal

by Diane Payne

Once again APPS members stood in unison and exercised our legal right to object to the Board’s violation of the PA Sunshine Act under Section 710 (c). The Board fails to post in advance or to read the full text into the record at the time of the vote, in effect voting in secret. The full text, although dated 12/12/19,  did not appear on the District website until 12/14/19. That is a falsification of the public record, as is reporting in the official Minutes that the Board voted on the full resolution at the meeting.

District counsel Lynn Rauch had consulted with APPS co-founder Lisa Haver before the meeting about whether APPS would be objecting again and how.  Lisa told her that, as we had in the previous two Action Meetings, we would be making one objection before the votes on charter Items, that it would take about one minute, and that the objection had to be noted for the record and reported in the Minutes. For some reason, Board member Chris McGinley began to speak over us, moving to approve the first Mastery charter. President Wilkerson said nothing, but Rauch interrupted him to explain the procedure. For the third month in a row, not one member of  the Board addressed the objection. McGinley again moved to approve Mastery Charter High School (aka Mastery Lenfest Charter).

The Board approved seven Mastery schools in September and five at this meeting; of the twelve, ten had been postponed because Mastery refused to accept any conditions which would rectify their deficiencies in academics, finance and organization. Although the previous CSO staff recommended renewal with conditions, those conditions just disappeared without explanation.

Nurses were back this month to highlight the ongoing District mismanagement of the health department to the detriment and danger of students, families, and staff.  Why do they have to keep coming back to tell this Board about the same issues?

Powerful  testimonies were presented by staff and supporters advocating for the District to fully adopt the Black Lives Matter Week of Action and and commit to anti-racist training for the entire staff. These testimonies should not be missed.

Present

All Board members, including non-voting student representatives, were present.  Board member Angela McIver left early; she did not vote on any Action Items. Meredith Elementary students opened the meeting on a pleasant and uplifting note with a medley of holiday songs.   Minutes from the November meeting were not approved; President Wilkerson said that they would be on the January agenda.

President’s  Remarks

Wilkerson began by addressing the controversial scheduling of one of the two hearings on this year’s new charter applications–the only one at which public testimony can be heard–on Friday December 20 at 4 PM. Public testimony will not begin until after 4:30.  Wilkerson assured the audience that if they could not make the 20th meeting, there were multiple opportunities to provide testimony on these applications at the January Action Meeting and the January committee meetings. In addition, she advised that all written testimony received by January 24th would be considered and included as part of the public record. When the community organizes on an issue crucial to its survival, is the most effective strategy for individuals to send in written testimony–or to show up en masse to demonstrate a united force?  In his antagonistic response to  APPS’ co-founder Karel Kiliminik’s testimony on this issue, McGinley said that December 20 is a workday for those at 440.  Actually, the workday ends at the time public testimony is to begin. McGinley did not address the scheduling of a special meeting on a Friday night five days before Christmas, or why none of the other days that week were chosen. Wilkerson also noted that the second hearing on the new charter school applications is scheduled for January 22nd; no public testimony will be accepted at that meeting.

Wilkerson again addressed Governor Wolf’s efforts to reform the PA Charter School.  She noted that the Board submitted suggestions to the Governor and will continue to participate in this effort.  Wilkerson did not offer information about where the public could read the suggestions submitted by the Board.

Superintendent’s Remarks

Dr. Hite noted that he and his staff have been working on an updated five year Action Plan.  Although he did not say how, Hite stated that every employee will play a role in this plan to identify what they need to do their jobs.  At last month’s Action Meeting, the Board passed Action Item 7, increasing the compensation of Attuned Education Partners by $76,000, for a total of  $218,000. This contract is for refining the PreK-3 curriculum. As Diane Payne testified last month and again at this meeting, the District’s kindergarten is an exercise in how not to teach young children. The Attuned team, as expected, are not educators but businesspeople.  It is no wonder, then, that child development is not the primary concern. This contract, and those with TNTP, Relay Graduate School, Jounce Partners, et al present an alarming foreshadowing for the new Action Plan.

Hite also celebrated that week’s ground-breaking, on the grounds of the closed and razed University City High School, for a new building, which will co-locate Powell Elementary and SLA Middle School ( SLAMS) on the Drexel campus. This project is a” public/private venture”,  with Drexel University and the Lenfest Foundation partnering with the District. When the public cedes part of its responsibility in order to obtain private support, it is important to remember that it also cedes part of its decision-making power to the private entity, which makes those decisions in private meetings.  As one SLAMS parent, a Penn professor of Education, told the Inquirer, “It’s a little scary. This changes the fundamental nature of what we say when something is a public school. I think we’re in very uncharted territory.”

Hite reported that he and Board Member Lee Huang visited H.A. Brown Elementary school to celebrate “Computer Science Week”.  With grants from Governor Wolf’s PA Smart initiative, the District has been able to expand computer access.

Hite ended with a recognition of the public outrage after the Notebook reported on the recent  $604,000  renovation of the executive suite at 440.  The Board approved the project last June.  Hite defended the expenditure, saying the space was not functional for the number of people needed to work there and that the renovation increased the working space by 70%.  Several speakers asked whether children in schools with a toxic substance problem can relate to the superintendent’s need to address a functional space issue. In June, SLA and Franklin parents had already begun to express concerns about the quality of the new construction and their fears, which came to pass, that it would not be finished by September. The Board should have voted to postpone this project and spend the money on abating construction and environmental crises.

Committee Reports

Co-chair Angela McIver read a summary of the December Student Achievement and Support Committee report.  (All committee meetings can be viewed on the SDP website by clicking on the Board of Education page and clicking “watch previous Board meetings”.)   APPS members attend every committee meeting and publish reports on those meetings; they can be viewed on the APPS website.  Because several speakers were slated to speak on Action Item 31–contract with TNTP/ Philly Plus and its corporate ties, McIver explained that this represented the last cohort of principals in this training before an in-house model is developed.  McIver also noted that Action Item 39 was added to initiate a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the City of Philadelphia to secure an interim physician for the District.

Co-chair Leticia Egea-Hinton gave the December Finance and Facility report.   Co-chair Maria McColgan reported on the November 14 Policy Committee meeting. Julia Danzy, co-chair of the Community Engagement Committee, called up a member of the Parent Advisory Board to present  remarks about the schools she visited and the issues raised at those schools. Once again, no name was provided in the printed agenda, only one oral introduction, even though this was part of the printed agenda. This despite Diane Payne’s stated request at a November committee meeting that all names of persons speaking at a Board meeting be included on the agenda.   Karel Kiliminik noted in her testimony that the Community Engagement Committee is required to hold quarterly meetings, yet none have been scheduled. She said that presentations from Advisory Board members should not replace actual community meetings.

Student Representative Imere Williams reported on the initiatives that he and the other student representative are working on.  Williams was very pleased with the Free Library’s decision not to restrict library usage due to unpaid fees; this was a position the student reps had been advocating.  He said students without internet access at home will benefit from this decision.

Student Speakers and Public Speakers on Action Items

There were eleven speakers from Mastery urging the Board to approve 5-year renewals for the five Mastery Charter Schools on this agenda.  Suggesting that the number of Mastery speakers was excessive, McGinley requested that in the future District staff limit speakers to four speakers in favor of a single item.  McGinley stated, “Our decisions are driven by the law, not by advocates.” Actually, there were no more than three speaking on behalf of one school; each school is handled in a separate Item. Mastery representatives named some elected officials who had publicly endorsed these renewals. These Councilmembers and State Representatives are no doubt aware of the stranded costs and other harm charter expansion has inflicted on the city’s public schools.  Few elected representatives have come to defend public schools or to urge the Board not to renew substandard charter schools. Why? APPS and other community members intend to ask our elected officials to speak out against the approval of the two new charter applications. Stay turned.

Lisa Haver spoke against the renewals of the Mastery Charter Schools, citing an approximate $325 million cost, over 5 years, to the District.   She placed a succession of wrapped boxes on the table, symbolizing the “gifts” the Board gives to charter operators, including: secret negotiations for renewals, refusal to hold public hearings on those renewals, the District’s treatment of charter operators as “clients” rather than recipients of tax dollars, renewal of charters that were recommended for non-renewal by their own staff, etc. Finally, she held up a lump of coal to signify what was left over for the children of the actual public schools.

Several APPS members again addressed the entrenched corporate influence in the District as reflected in the number of contracts with outside vendors approved at every Board meeting.   All APPS testimony can be viewed on the APPS website.

Election of Board Officers

Dr. Hite presided over the election of Board President and Vice President.  Joyce Wilkerson and Wayne Walker retained their positions by unanimous consent,  and the committee structure will remain in place. It was not clear why the Board was electing officers now, as Mayor Kenney must appoint a new board when his second term begins. And though Wilkerson again joked about her “direction” of the Board, implying that the members are actually independent, not one addressed APPS’ objections on this or any other night. After the voting, Wilkerson proposed “an added item” for the votes to be made official. However, she failed to instruct District staff to sign up any member of the public who wished to speak on what was actually an Item “from the floor”.  That is a violation of the 2015 settlement between the District and APPS after APPS sued the District for a pattern of Sunshine Act violations.

Action Item Votes

Board Member McIver left during the public speaking, before the voting on Action Items.   Eight Board Members were present for the voting.

Action Item 1:  Review only, no vote this month.

Action Items 2 through 4, 8 through 32, and 39: passed.

Action Item 8:  Passed. This Item dealt with student teaching agreements with several institutions of higher learning. Board Members Wilkerson, McGinley, Fix Lopex, and Huang were recorded as “Yes” votes, although they said that they were abstaining on the particular section of Item which included the school with which they were affiliated.*

Action Items 5 through 7: Passed unanimously.

Action Items 33 through 37 (FACTS and five Mastery Charter renewals):  Passed unanimously.

*There is a serious legal problem with the voting on Item 8. McGinley, Huang, Wilkerson and Fix Lopez said that they were voting to approve only certain sections of the Item and were abstaining from the section that included contracts with the schools with which they are affiliated. Their votes were recorded by Rauch as votes in favor of the Item. This is not accepted legal practice for governmental bodies.  The Board members should have made their conflicts known to the Office of Legal Counsel prior to the meeting or before the voting took place. The Item would then be written as separate Items, one for each of the colleges named. The Board should retake these votes in January.

Speakers on General Topics

The school nurses were out in force again.   There were about seventeen nurses and District service providers in attendance.  The ongoing mismanagement of the District’s health department continues to plague the nurses and handcuff them as they try to provide health services to students. Their testimony clearly outlined the problems and their recommended solutions.  Why does this administration fail to address these issues? With every testimony a new level of mismanagement is revealed. Nurses described getting unsigned directions via emails from the Office of Student Support, whose oversight has resulted in the many problems these nurses have described.  In addition, District physical therapist Robin Roberts told the Board that the District has lost millions in billable hours because of the District’s failure to have a physician on duty. Roberts testified, “Fiscal Year 2020 school district budget anticipates over $9.8 million in ACCESS grant funding revenue to the district. In the 2.5 months that we have been without a physician, we have lost approximately $2.5 million, $980K/month, $54K/day”.  At the conclusion of Roberts’ testimony, President Wilkerson directed Hite to produce a report on this information at the January Action Meeting. The nurses pointed to the smooth functioning of the District Health department before its supervision was taken over by non-medical staff in the Office of Student Supports. It seems like an easy fix to restore the supervision of medical services by medical personnel. Every month this goes unaddressed continues to put staff and students in harm’s way.

Three members of the Caucus of Working Educators of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers gave powerful testimony in asking the Board to fully endorse the Black Lives Matter Week at Schools and fully commit to District wide anti-racist training. Ismael Jimenez, Kristin Luebbert, and Tamara Anderson (supporting member) spoke of the deep need, supported by history, for the District to not just support but endorse and implement both of these initiatives.  At the conclusion of their testimony, Hite thanked them, and in response to Jiminez’s request, agreed to meet with them on these initiatives.

The Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP) came under fire in the testimonies of the principal and staff members from Kensington Health Sciences High School (KHSA).  Diane Payne, in her earlier testimony, stated, “The price tag associated with the Neubauer and PSP largess is the continued inroads to practices that promote corporate agendas and not education agendas”.  Even those familiar with PSP’s history  were shocked to hear KHSA principal Nimet Eren tell how PSP officials visited her school some months ago to suggest they were looking to partner with a school in the health sciences area.  Eren described how excited she was to showcase her school, and she looked forward to finding out how PSP was planning to support its mission. Imagine her surprise when PSP staff contacted her and told her they had “an exciting opportunity” for her: PSP planned to invest in a new charter school that would focus on health and science (the Health Sciences Leadership Charter High School that just applied last month). She said she expressed confusion and said that seemed like competition.  When she asked how it would be helpful, PSP staff actually told her KHSA could learn from their model. How contemptible of PSP to lie in order to exploit the successes of a public school in a struggling neighborhood. This again demonstrates the pitfalls in allowing these types of corporate reform organizations access to public schools, whether at the school or administrative level. When we relinquish public oversight to private interests, we lose part of our democratic voice and power.