Ears on the Board of Education: February 28, 2019

by Diane Payne

This Board meeting seems to have signaled a real change in direction by those in charge of the District. All new charter applications were denied, and Dr. Hite responded to concerns brought by teachers about oppressive administrative practices.


All nine members of the Board of Education were present as well as student representative Alfredo Pratico. (Student representative Julia Frank was absent.)  All meeting agendas and materials can be viewed on the SDP website and videos of previous meetings can be viewed by scrolling down on the BOE home page and clicking on Watch Previous Board Meetings.

Five members of APPS testified in defense of Public Education.  You can read APPS members’ testimony (and reports on Philly Public Education issues) on the APPS website. The room was filled to capacity; some members of the public had to sit in the lobby overflow area.

The meeting opened with a beautiful student performance by The Franklin Learning Center’s singing group The Bobtones, directed by Michelle Frank.  These performances serve as a reminder of the importance of the Arts in our schools’ curricula. The Arts should never be considered an “extra.”

Committee Reports

Reports from the Student Achievement (S.A.) and Finance and Facilities (F&F) committees were presented by Co-chairs Chris McGinley (S.A.) and Lee Huang (F&F).  (See APPS’ reports of these committee meetings on our website.) Community Engagement Committee Co-chair Mallory Fix Lopez reported that the announcement on those selected (of 123 applicants) for the Parent Advisory Committee would be made next Thursday, March 7th.  She also reported that the next Community Engagement meeting will be held at the Blackwell Community Center in West Philadelphia on March 21st. Information and a request for RSVP (not mandatory, just for planning purposes for food and childcare) can be found on the Board website.  Policy Committee Co-chair Maria McColgan reported that nine policies have been on the agenda for review and will be voted on at the March Board Action Meeting: Policies 111, 123.3, 211, 217, 304, 617, 709, 804, and 805.

Two of these policies have brought passionate teacher and student testimony to this meeting and to previous Board Action & Committee meetings.  Policy 111, concerning unauthorized changes in language on teacher lesson plans, had teachers testifying before the Board about ongoing administrator harassment through extensive demands on lesson plan language that circumvents the PFT contract and causes harmful and unnecessary busy work for teachers.  The increasing paperwork demands means less time for teachers to spend with their students.

Policy 805 on Emergency Preparedness would require the use of metal detectors in every Philadelphia public high school. This too has sparked student testimony at this and previous Board meetings in opposition to increased policing.  More on both of these issues below.

New Charter School Applications

It is safe to say that both sides, those who came to speak against approving more charters and the applicants themselves, were stunned by the Board’s unanimous votes to deny all three.

Votes on three new Charter School Applications were on the agenda: Action Item 4, Joan Myers Brown Academy: A String Theory Charter School;  Action Item 5, Frederick Douglas Charter School: A People for People Charter School; and Action Item 6, Tacony Academy Charter School at St. Vincent’s: An American Paradigm Charter School.

This application process began in Fall  2018 with the submission of the applications, followed by a two-part hearing process presided over by Hearing Officer Allison Petersen with an analysis and report of each application by the Charter School Office (CSO),  and culminating in the vote to approve or deny at this meeting.

APPS members attended and testified at all the new application hearings, read the applications and CSO reports, and published reports based on our own research and analysis of each application.  We submitted those reports to all Board members.

The CSO reports identified numerous deficiencies, omissions, and concerns, including but not limited to: inter-related Board and money interests, both obvious and potential conflicts of interest,  deficient curricula and staffing, items omitted from the proposed budget, two applicants’ refusal to sign new charter agreements for their existing schools, and systemic poor academic performance in those schools.

APPS provided public testimony at every hearing, Action Meeting and Committee Meeting during this months-long process in order to expose the applications numerous flaws and deficiencies, even before the CSO reports were issued, which was very late in the process. In addition to APPS members, teachers, parents, and legal experts testified against these applications.  In 2015, David Lapp, formerly of the Education Law Center (ELC) testified before the SRC that financial harm to existing public school students has a legal basis when considering new applications.  That testimony, repeated by APPS members at subsequent meetings, fell on deaf ears at the SRC.

Concurring with Lapp’s  legal argument, charter expert Susan DeJarnatt from the Beasley School of Law at Temple University has issued briefs on the expense of expanding Charter Schools.   DeJarnatt’s in-person testimony was supported with a copy of her 47-page legal argument defending school districts’ rights in considering financial harm resulting from charter expansion.

Attorney Reynelle Staley of the Education Law Center testified on the newly released research ELC just issued on the violation of federal anti-discrimination laws that is rampant among the city’s charters. This 32-page report highlights the inequity found in several areas including special education and English Learners, along with discriminatory practices by race and economic levels.

APPS members raised the issue of the eye-popping salaries of charter CEOs and their administrative staffs. We also detailed the money trail through the circular real estate deals and the profits made by the charters’ affiliated businesses–management companies, real estate companies, contractors, and consultants–all at the expense of public schoolchildren and taxpayers.  Well researched articles appeared in The Public School Notebook on both Frederick Douglas and Tacony at St. Vincent detailed the many deficiencies and conflicts of interest in these applications.

This meeting represented the first time in the twenty years of Philadelphia charter school expansion that those charged with protecting the interests of public school children actually carried out their mission. Not a single approval vote was cast.  The inadequate applications, the poor performance of the applicants’ existing schools, the inter-relatedness of charter boards and their management companies. and the failure to sign contracts with their existing schools were all cited as reasons for denial.

Charter operators and investors have pitted communities against each other and have often taken advantage of families’ desire to do what is best for their children.  These applicants expressed dismay over the CSO critiques of their applications, even testifying that the criticisms were “biased” and “flawed”–without giving any specific examples–and that the inadequacies cited could be easily fixed.  The Charter School home page for new applicants states: “Please note: The CSO does not review or provide feedback on draft applications. Once an application is submitted by the due date, it is considered final and will be reviewed as submitted.”  All three of these applicants have existing schools.  They know how the process works. The lengthy list of problems reported in these applications did not exhibit quality and failed to take into account the instructions clearly stated on the CSO homepage.

It is past time for a charter school moratorium until all public schools are made whole and toxic free and until the charter sector operates successfully and with transparency.

Lesson Plans: Policy 111

Teachers from District Network 3 returned to shine a light on the oppressive and meaningless paperwork demands being generated by administrators.  (How many other Networks share this problem?) They brought a letter signed by 150 teachers from six schools to verify that this issue has become a problem throughout Network 3.  The language in the suggested policy change for lesson plans opened a door for some administrators to pile on busy work while failing to honor the contractual language in the District’s contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT).  In addition to increased lesson plan requirements, these teachers noted the daunting paperwork needed to plan school trips and reimbursements for teachers’ extracurricular activities. The demands for multiple submissions leaves teachers exhausted, deadlines missed, and payment not received.  In addition, teachers in this Network have been subject to retribution for pushing back against these demands. The culture of fear that exists in too many of our schools has been a subject of testimony before this Board on numerous occasions. APPS member Diane Payne asked during her testimony to  the Board: “What steps will 440 administrators take to genuinely understand the concerns and problems of teachers in a way that safeguards them from retribution?” There was no answer to that question then, but it needs to be repeated until there is one.

It was encouraging to hear Dr. Hite immediately respond to the teachers from Network 3 and again state (as he did at the January Board meeting) that it was not the intent of Policy 111 change to add burdensome paperwork nor to circumvent the PFT contract.  He said the language in the Policy was going to exactly match the contract language and that this issue would be dealt with “tomorrow.” He also addressed the confusion about trip documentation and said that changes in this paperwork were the direct result of the bus accident that occurred last year and that he would make sure that clear directions on needed paperwork would go to all schools.  Finally, Hite suggested that the teachers involved in the EC non-payment contact his office about this matter.

One suggestion for Board members and 440 staff: have your finger on the pulse of what is really happening in your school buildings.  Talk to teachers, parents, students. Too many people have testified about the culture of fear and the fact that the increasing paperwork is out of control.

Policy 805: Student Voice

Policy 805–Emergency Preparedness states that every high school will have and utilize metal detectors.  Students have organized and testified at previous Board Action and Student Achievement Committee meetings.  Five students testified at this Board meeting to say that this view of “Emergency Preparedness” is contributing to the school-to-prison-pipeline.  Many students stated that in addition to the long lines and delays in getting into school buildings, the negative feelings generated by passing through these detectors and the monitoring police officers affects all students.  The Philly Student Union (PSU) is advocating for risk management studies and dialogues with stakeholders in order to come to informed decisions about the policing in our schools and how money is best spent.

Board Student Representative Alfredo Pratico read a statement prepared by him fellow Student Representative Julia Frank in support of the students’ position.  PSU Executive Director Julian Terrell testified and presented a folder of student testimonies to the Board that he said were from students denied the ability to speak at this meeting.  District teacher Luke Zeller also testified in support of the students.

Board Member Mallory Fix Lopez expressed support for the students.  Board Member Julia Danzy worried about how to balance pupil safety with policing concerns.  The voices of these young people should not be ignored. Hopefully this will begin a discussion about this important topic that will involve all stakeholder voices.

Recruitment and Retention

A teacher and an assistant principal testified on the lack of one-to-one classroom assistants for Autistic Support at Kensington High School. (How many other schools are lacking in this area?) They painted a picture of what happens when there is no IEP mandated one-to-one support and how the ensuing downward spiral affects all students in the class.  They pointed out that the paltry annual salary of $19,000 for this important, full-time position is at the heart of the recruitment and retention problem. The District currently has no pool of eligible candidates, and without offering a living wage this will probably continue to be a problem. As the teacher and assistant principal pointed out, the District may face expensive legal action if they fail to remedy this situation.  Some students have not had their mandated 1-1 worker for two years.  This topic has been brought before the Board on several occasions.

Votes on Action Items

A.I. 1         [the 9 Policies listed above] for review only; vote will be on March 28th.

A.I. 2        Unanimous Yes Vote

A.I. 3        Unanimous Yes Vote

A.I. 4        Unanimous Vote to Deny

A.I. 5       Vote to Deny, 6 Yes, 0 No, 3 abstentions due to conflicts

A.I. 6       Unanimous Vote to Deny

A.I. 7 to 9      Unanimous Yes Vote

A.I. 10 to 12    Unanimous Yes Vote

A.I. 13 to 24    Unanimous Yes Vote

A.I. 25 to 38  There was discussion on A.I. 35 (School Year 20/21 school calendar) in response to concerns from community members about the two-week length of the winter break.  The Board voted unanimously to table pending further discussion. In spite of ongoing concerns about next year’s school calendar (S.Y. 19/20) scheduling a full teacher PD day for Monday, December 23rd,  A.I. 34 passed with 8 Yes votes and 1 No vote from Mallory Fix Lopez. Chris McGinley and Joyce Wilkerson abstained from A.I. 31; the remainder of these Items passed with unanimous Yes votes.

Next Board Action Meeting

Next Action Meeting: March 28, 2019 at 5:00 p.m.  Sign up to speak by visiting the Board of Education page on the School District website.  This meeting showed what organizing, researching, and speaking up can accomplish. We can make a difference in our schools!