Ears on the Board of Education : February 25, 2021

By Diane Payne

The remote February  Board of Education Action Meeting again enforced the silencing of students, parents, educators and community members through its regressive speaker policy. The Board’s sign-up process has no transparency, so we cannot know how many were barred from speaking before or after the window closed. How many students and adults were denied their right to be heard? How many ways did the Board violate the state’s Sunshine Act?  Both Speaker Lists reflected the Board’s new 10-student and 30-adult speaker limits. This Board, as the governing body of the public school system, has no right to violate the law or its own by-laws by secretly amending official District policies. The Board has an obligation to provide a venue in which Philadelphians can participate freely and openly in governmental business.  Other efforts to engage the public should not be conflated with public meetings where the Board votes on official items.  The speaker changes first implemented in December include capping speakers and reducing speaking time, as well as moving up the deadline for sending in written testimony. These changes were implemented in secret with no public notification or Board deliberation. They reversed decades of precedent that even the SRC adhered to.  APPS members call on the Board to reverse these changes.

Board Welcomes Three New Members

All nine Board members, including the three new members, were present, as were both  student representatives.  Sworn in on February 19 were Lisa Salley, a Philadelphia public school graduate and engineer; Reginald Streeter, a Philadelphia public school graduate and ACLU attorney; and Cecelia Thompson, a longtime advocate for Philadelphia students with special needs and a member of the Board’s Parent and Community Advisory Council. Welcome to all the new Board members.

President Joyce Wilkerson was present for the entire meeting, but for reasons not given, Vice-president Leticia Egea-Hinton chaired this meeting. Egea-Hinton announced the March 1 application deadline for the Parent and Community Advisory Council position and the March 22 deadline for student Board representatives. Egea-Hinton reported that a public hearing was held on February 16th regarding the closing and demolition of Austin Meehan Middle School. This demolition was the planned outcome of the construction of the new Ryan Avenue school whose anticipated opening is for the 2021/22 SY.  Egea-Hinton also  announced that KIPP Parkside has submitted an amendment request for a name and location change. She stated, incorrectly, that the amendment appears on the Charter School page of the District website. As of this publishing, no updated information can be found about this KIPP request on the SDP Charter School/Amendment page.

Superintendent Hite Recognizes Nurse of the Year Eileen Duffey

Superintendent Hite began his remarks by congratulating the District employees who won three of five Philadelphia Citizen awards. For some reason, Hite did not identify the winners. He also announced the first Student Oratorical Contest the next day that would feature six District student finalists;  again, he did not identify those finalists.  

Hite then congratulated Eileen Duffy Bernt, winner of the PA School Nurse of the Year Award. This was truly a highlight of the evening. In addition to being a wonderful school nurse, loved by the students at Palumbo High School, Eileen has been a fierce advocate for Philadelphia’s families for many years. She was one of the organizers of the months-long  “Occupy 440” protests after the 2011 layoff of over 100 school nurses.  Eileen’s determined and relentless advocacy is well known in the District and it is a great pleasure to know she has been recognized by the National Association of School Nurses. Congratulations, Eileen!

Hite Explains Latest Reopening Plan

Hite announced a joint news conference to be held on Monday, March 1st at 1:00 p.m. with representatives from the District, the City, and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT). The results of the mediator’s report on building readiness will be announced. Until then, all PreK-2 classes will remain fully remote. Hite told the Board that upon returning to buildings, all staff will receive weekly mandatory rapid testing (exempt from testing would be those with documented medical issues).  A positive test would result in the employee’s immediate departure from the building; the employee would then be required to obtain a second PCR (Hite did not say what the initials stand for)  test to confirm results.  If negative on the PCR test, the staff member would return to work.  If  positive, that would begin a 10-day quarantine.  The staff member’s contractual sick time will not be used for that required quarantine.  Hite’s presentation left questions about the protocol for getting this second test. Is it clear to staff members how this step works?

Fix Lopez asked about class coverage if a teacher must unexpectedly leave the building. Hite replied that a substitute or other adult would cover the class, but that does not really address the issue of who would step in immediately. It takes a while for a substitute to be located and assigned. Who will supervise the class right after a teacher leaves?  Another teacher?  The principal or assistant principal?  

Hite also said that school nurses will administer a weekly rapid test to a random 20% of children in every school. Hite also told the Board that any child who tests positive “will be supervised by a medical professional in a designated waiting room.” This raises more questions than answers. Who is the medical professional; the school nurse who is performing her school-wide nursing duties? Where is the designated waiting room in the buildings, surely not the nurse’s office? Why did Board Members not clarify this crucial information?” Who will supervise these children waiting for pick-up?  Poorly resourced schools do not have a surplus of staff–especially since the 2014 Hite layoffs of support staff, many of whom were never called back.  

Hite reported that the District, in conjunction with the PA Department of Health, is developing a testing protocol for staff and students working and learning remotely.  The six testing sites will be located at Martin Luther King High School, Northeast HS, South Philadelphia HS,  Strawberry Mansion HS,  and Tilden Middle School. The District website will post information when the sites are open for rapid testing. 

Hite said that all District staff have been sent invitations to register for vaccination through CHOP.  Staff appointments should be completed by March 13th.

Fix Lopez questioned Hite about how the District was purchasing HEPA filters and air purifiers. She also asked for his thoughts on individual schools raising funds for those items. Hite’s answers did not seem to reflect reality.  He said that the District is testing filters and purifiers and that they hope to purchase those that fit District needs.  Hite said that it is possible the District could be refunded for these items through federal channels. Hite told Fix Lopez that  he did not encourage, and did not want,  any individual school fundraising for these items.  The website for the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia, the District’s own fundraising arm, showed that night that more than one school is already raising funds for these items.  Those fundraising campaigns were no longer on the site the following morning, perhaps because they reached their goal.

Additional Board Member questions around PPE, preparing students for return to buildings, and the meaning of “layers of protection” were fielded by the Superintendent.  Hite has referred on several occasions to a “principal playbook” that gives solid advice to principals related to COVID reopening.  New Board Member Thompson asked if everyone could see and use this playbook.  Hite said he would look into it. 

In response to a question from Thompson regarding student mental health needs, Hite claimed that every building has a Behavior Health Counselor. (You can hear this assertion at approximately time stamp 36:00 on the Action Meeting video.Board of Education – The School District of Philadelphia ). However, on the School District budget page, the following is noted on page 7: “All schools must have a counselor position that is designated for ‘guidance’. A subset of designated CSI schools are required to have at least one behavioral health counselor in their buildings.”  (CSI stands for Comprehensive Support and Improvement — a state designation for identifying schools needing improvement.) So, the question again looms, is Hite knowingly offering incorrect information to ally Board Member Thompson’s concerns, or does every school in fact have a behavioral health counselor in addition to the guidance counselor as Hite led Board Members to believe? We hope that these specialists will work directly with real kids and not be bogged down in paperwork further restricting their ability to actually work with students.

Student Representative Diaz asked about progress around in-person graduation for seniors.  Hite said they are in discussion with principals and the health department to determine how they can make that happen. He told her that it does not look like proms will be possible due to overall restrictions but he is hopeful about graduations.

The Last Committee Standing

After the Board’s elimination of the committees for Student Achievement, Finance and Facilities, and Parent and Community Engagement, only the Policy Committee, with meetings four times a year, remains.  Committee Chair Maria McColgan gave a report on the policies discussed on February 11th.  (See this meeting here, and read APPS report on this meeting at APPSPhilly.net.)  

McColgan omitted from her report the testimony of three public speakers,  including two APPS members and a member of the Racial Justice Organizing Committee. All spoke against the disenfranchising changes to the Board’s speaker policy. Over the past two months, advocates, staff, students, elected officials, the ACLU, and the Education Law Center have all raised their voices against these changes. McColgan waited until after all speakers had been disconnected to read from a prepared statement defending the changes, ignoring the voices of the many defenders of democracy who are rallying against the Board’s authoritarian action.  Once again the Board fails to match words to action. The Board promised public engagement and transparency, and they have delivered the exact opposite.

Students Defend Democracy

We can feel some hope about our country’s future when we hear the powerful and eloquent voices of our student speakers.  The Board capped the student speakers at ten; we have no way to know how many were excluded. Almost every student speaker decried this shutting out of student voices. Several again called on Hite and the Board to support their campaign to register eligible students to vote. After years of giving lip service, it is time for Hite and the Board to put words into action. Why is there still no District policy in place?  This is a no-brainer.  It is non-partisan, essential, and easy to implement.

Goals and Guardrails™

As they did last month, the Board subjected parents, educators, and community members to two hours of data analysis about information in the G & G color-coded boxes. The agenda puts public speakers after G & G, so people who wish to participate have no choice but to stay on hold during the seemingly interminable process. It is hard not to cringe when Board members ask permission to ask a “how question” during the “what question” section.  They could not have found a better way to prove how far they are from the independent governing body they promised to be. This month’s analysis was again laden with percentages, charts, graphs, and edu-jargon that had no room to consider the uniqueness and humanity of the actual students who are reduced to data points in the G & G.  The highlighted topic was Board Goal 3, the percentage of students in grades 3-8 who are proficient on the state Math assessment will grow from 21.6% in August 2019 to 52.0% by August 2026.

It appeared to be a revelation to Board members that students doing better reside in Center City, the Northeast, and parts of West Philadelphia. Did we need a new and complicated data analysis system to reveal that attendance is a big factor in success, teacher stability affects outcomes, more staff development around math MTSS (Multi-Tiered Systems of Supports) is needed, low expectations and climate issues affect student achievement.  If the Board, Dr. Hite, and the administrative staff really listened to, and acted on, the testimony of staff, students, and advocates, and they followed the social media dialogue about what schools need and clearly identifies what is wrong–and they didn’t go out of their way to not listen to people– maybe they wouldn’t need to waste everyone’s time with yet another word salad program.

Board members McIver and Fix Lopez both questioned Hite’s commitment to proceed with this year’s standardized testing.  As expected, Hite doubled down on his belief in the importance of the tests.  District teacher Charlie McGeehan, in his testimony,  reminded the Board of the racist origins of standardized tests, quoting from historian Ibram X. Kendi’s book “How to be an Antiracist”. At the January 30, 2020 Action Meeting, APPS member Diane Payne gave five copies of this book to Hite and the Board to share and read.  Kendi’s work is just one source identifying the racist harm in standardized testing.  The Hite administration and the Board continue to implement the “reforms” of  the corporate model that depends on oppressive and harmful testing practices and it doesn’t appear that they have read Kendi’s important work.

Public Speakers Demand Reversal of Regressive Speaker Policies

The first general speaker was not called until the fourth hour of the meeting. Seven of the thirty speakers did not answer when called, probably because they were not able to hang in until after the almost 2-hour long Goals and Guardrails conversation. We have no way of knowing how many speakers may have been shut out of testifying at this meeting after the 30-limit cap was reached. Almost every speaker had their mic cut off before finishing their remarks in the allotted two minutes, giving lie to the Board’s claims of public engagement and putting an ugly face on the Board’s consideration and respect for the public they serve.  A significant number of speakers criticized the Board’s silencing of the collective community voice. Six members of APPS testified in defense of public education.  Their testimonies can be viewed here.

Community Conversations

Maria McColgan reported on the February 18th Community Conversation hosted by the Parent and Community Advisory Council.  These are the conversations the Board touts as justification for changing the speaker policy.  What advocates repeatedly try to communicate to the Board is that a small, localized,  informal community conversation cannot be conflated as the same as District governance meetings.  Citizen participation in governance is a key protection afforded under the Sunshine Act. The next Community Conversation is April 8th at 4:00 p.m.  You can register here to attend.

Board Votes

Board members voted to approve a total of $47. 8 million  in District spending this month.  With the exception of Thompson’s one dissension on Item 14, all votes were unanimous. 

  • Items 4 and 16: withdrawn by staff
  • Item 1:  Passed  unanimously
  • Items 2, 3, and 5: Passed unanimously
  • Item 11: Passed unanimously after discussion. This $1.6 million extends an existing contract with the North Carolina-based Parsons Environmental and Infrastructure Group Inc. for a Facilities Master Plan.  Families and educators whose schools were closed in 2013 remember that the Facilities Master Plan, along with the Boston Consulting Group plan, provided the bases of the District’s rationale for those permanent closures. Thompson asked whether there were local companies for this service, alluding to those with outside construction contractors hired by the Hite administration for what became an expensive debacle at Benjamin Franklin High School. Hite responded that this is a group that does this work, they are already under contract and we just extended the contract.  When Thompson questioned whether payment would be withheld if Parsons did not produce the “deliverables” on time. Hite’s answer was less than fully informative. He said Chief Operating Officer Reggie McNeil was meeting with the company representatives weekly and they would not be paid for anything they did not deliver. Hite did not specify whether payment would be withheld if services were not delivered on time.  Streeter asked if he could see the contract to determine the specifics of Parson’s diversity commitment.  Neither Hite, McNeil, nor Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson knew about the diversity component; the reason given was that the contract was initiated years ago. Monson stated that in the future the new ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) process will keep track of these components automatically. No Board member asked:  Is no one in Hite’s cabinet, or Hite himself, able to access this contract?  The Parson report will be fully released in June.

Block Voting (the Board calls this, for reasons unknown, the “Consent Agenda”)Items 6-10, 12-15, 17-22:  all except Item 14 passed unanimously; Thompson voted No on Item 14.

In regard to Item 14, Thompson asked why the District was unable to find a local pest control company, noting that all contracts were with companies from Delaware, New Jersey and Maryland. The only (non) answer given was that these companies were accepted through the RFP process.

Action Items 18-22 , all concerning testing and vaccination, were all added to the agenda on February 19th.  Fix Lopez asked about the cost through insurance for testing of staff.  Hite said it could raise the District cost to IBX Blue Cross/Blue Shield but since some other areas may decrease it wasn’t clear yet if that would occur.  Hite said that CHOP would bear the costs of the vaccinations.