Ears on the Board of Education: January 17, 2019

by Diane Payne


Board President Joyce Wilkerson, Vice-president Wayne Walker, Leticia Egea-Hinton, Mallory Fix Lopez, Lee Huang, Maria McColgan, Chris McGinley and student reps Julia Frank and Alfredo Pratico were present; Julia Danzy and Angela McIver were absent.  (All meeting materials, and videos of meetings can be found on the BOE page of the SDP website.)

Nine members of APPS were present for this meeting; all nine testified on behalf of public education.

Student singers from Northeast High School opened the meeting.  Their performance pieces reflected the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in honor of this Monday’s day of remembrance.  These student performers are a lovely way to begin the meetings and a reminder of what we fight for when we defend quality public education.

Minutes of the December 13, 2018 Action Meeting were approved.

Meeting Materials Are Public Documents

APPS has sent several letters to the Board over the past months requesting that meeting materials be available to all who attend. President Wilkerson and committee co-chairs tell attendees that agendas and other materials are posted online. We have had to point out that many community members still do not have online access. And are members of the public supposed to memorize all of the Action Items like children doing homework?  Even if we could, the Board adds items at the last minute on a regular basis. At committee meetings, there was one Speakers List taped to the desk outside the Conference Room until we asked the committees to print more. After several requests, the committees finally projected all Action Items that were on the agenda that were being discussed, not just the title of the Item.

At the beginning of this meeting, President Wilkerson proudly announced a new high-tech system for members of the public to access the Action Items and attachments: we could have our phones take a picture of a [bar code] and read the documents on those screens. This app did not work for two APPS members who tried it. Nor would it work for people who don’t have smart phones, or whose phones are not fully charged.  On a standard phone screen, it would be difficult if not impossible to read the details of an item, such as the cost or the beginning and end dates of a contract.

A few months ago, the Board stopped printing out enough hard copies for those attending Action Meetings.  There are usually over 100 people in attendance. There are now three binders on a table in the back of the auditorium with the written directive NOT to remove them or the papers in them.  Are people supposed to stand in the back thumbing through binders during the meeting if they want to know what is being discussed or voted on?  Meeting materials are public documents; any member of the public who wants them has a right to take them.

There are other reasons to make sufficient written materials available. Activists and reporters make notes on comments made by Board members and how they vote on Action Items.  The Board’s online Novus system is difficult to navigate and information is often hard to find. In addition, the District has failed to restore all information online after it made a transition to a new system.

The Board’s given reason for this is its wish to go “paperless”. How much paper does the District use each week? Compared to that, printing meeting materials for one monthly meeting is negligible.  As the Board continues to repeat its commitment to transparency, we remind them that we will watch what they do, not what they say.

Superintendent’s Remarks

Superintendent William Hite announced the pre-k and kindergarten registration opening, the kickoff of the teacher recruitment process, a new page on the district website explaining how inclement weather decisions are made, and highlighted MLK day activities planned for January 21st.

Last week, the Student Achievement Committee meeting recommended that two Action Items be tabled until the Board had additional information on these contracts. Hite asked the Board to pass one of them–Action Item 3, a $400,000 contract with Magnum Integrated Marketing–because a postponement would delay the company’s timeline to begin teacher recruitment. Hite had no objection to postponing the WestEd contract.  (See “ESL Advocates” below.)

Hite also urged the Board to vote and approve Action Item 10, a renewal contract with the Children’s Literacy Initiative (CLI) for $17,000,000 to expand the current program from grades K-3 to all K-12 grades.  Hite cited positive responses from teachers and principals on District surveys. He offered a detailed powerpoint and explanation of the success of the CLI initiative which will total over $40 million since its first District contract in  2014. Neither Hite’s explanation nor the powerpoint graphics were easy to follow. Hite’s sales pitch for CLI was extensive compared to his remarks on most other subjects in his monthly remarks. Several educators had submitted written testimony and written letters to Board members prior to the meeting, and CLI was a topic for a number of speakers, including APPS members.  APPS continues to question the benefit versus expense of this and other contracts under consideration. Many educator questions and complaints have begun to emerge about the direction and impact of CLI. CLI is a top-down forced decision claiming literacy gains, but as one educator pointed out, “correlation is not causation”. There are many other factors that could have caused an increase in test scores.  For example, Dr. Hite did not mention whether any of the schools measured had been given addition resources or placed in the Acceleration Network in the past three years.

Black Lives Matter

Educators and activists came to urge the Board to sign-on to the Black Lives Matter School Week of Action for the week of February 2nd to 9th.  This initiative began three yrs ago when members of the PFT’s Caucus of Working Educators were moved to do more than just watch from the sidelines as the Black Lives Matter efforts began to unfold.  It has now spread to 30 cities. Six speakers at this meeting, as well as the many supporters standing behind the speaker’s chair displaying the Black Lives Matter banner, were asking the District to lend its full, signed-on support.  Unfortunately, no answer or even acknowledgement came from anyone at the table. The BLM attendees were representative of educators advocating for their students–educators taking initiative, educators creating, educators collaborating.  They communicated their personal commitment and growth as well as the impact they have on their students when addressing crucial issues. This is bottom-up inspiring work. But it seemed to have fallen on deaf ears of those who apparently prefer a more top-down approach.

Is Community Engagement Just A Slogan?

Speaker Teresa Engst, representing Asians Americans United, spoke on Action Item 5, Release and Expanded Deed Restriction  at 3001 Ryan Ave. This Item is in reference to the proposed new school building on the grounds of Lincoln High School’s campus.  Mayfair Elementary parents had a contentious beginning to their school year after the Hite administration made a decision, leaving little time for the community to react or plan,  to move K-1 students to one wing of Austin Meehan Middle School. This occurred after years of Mayfair’s continued growth until bursting at the seams. Last spring, parents organized and demanded the District address community concerns about this move and the continuing overcrowding problem.

Engst spoke on behalf of the families who could not be present at this Board meeting but have the same growing concerns moving forward with the new school plans.  She said that they were never informed of the district’s decision to build this new school, nor have they been included in any of the discussions up to this point in the planning process.  Engst spelled out the parents many concerns and asked that the community be included in the decision making process. McGinley concurred with Engst and said the Board shares her concerns about this project.  He said the community has been saddled with a subpar building on this site for 40 years (McGinley served as principal at Austin Meehan) and he doesn’t want this Board to make the same mistakes. He also expressed concerns about how the community is going to be engaged.  Chief Operating Officer Danielle Floyd was called to the front to explain this Action Item and address the concerns.

Floyd explained that the purpose of Action Item 5 was only to file paperwork in Orphan’s Court to lift deed restrictions and allow the planning of this new building to move forward.  She further stated that they were committed to community engagement.  It is hard to grasp how a district spokesperson can affirm commitment to community engagement while the very community they are supposed to be engaging hasn’t heard from the District in six months, did not know that a school was approved for construction, and had to show up at a Board meeting to get noticed.  The district pushes more and more Professional Development to “fix” teachers. Maybe 440 needs PD on what real community engagement looks like.

Educators Advocate for English Language Learners

Six speakers  advocated for quality ESL professional development.  At last week’s Student Achievement Committee, Board members questioned District staff about a proposed $542, 000 contract with WestEd to provide training to district staff.  For some reason, the District spokesperson at that meeting was unprepared and couldn’t answer the Board member’s questions even though data has been collected since the inception of the program. The Committee recommended that the Action Item be withdrawn before the January Board Action Meeting in order to give district staff time to provide sufficient information at next month’s Committee meeting. The Board may then vote on the Item in February.

The District was sued in the 1980’s because inadequate services to English Learners.  It has taken decades to implement high quality PD for sheltered content teachers. This inability to answer questions only highlights the low priority the District still places on our vulnerable and growing English Learner population.

Several advocates spoke for the expansion of QTEL, a specific program provided by WestEd to greater numbers of district staff.  These educators could not speak highly enough about the merits and benefits of this particular program. They all robustly supported the expansion of the QTEL professional development contract. Thank goodness for advocates who raise their voices for those who cannot.

Votes on Charter School Next Month

In February, the Board will be voting to approve or deny three new charter applications: Joan Myers Brown: A String Theory Charter School, People for People/Frederick Douglass Charter High School, and Tacony Academy Charter School/American Paradigm at St. Vincent’s.  Ten public speakers again raised the need for a moratorium on charter expansion, especially in light of the District’s projected budget problems. These speakers covered a breadth of concerns including: ongoing budget problems, poor SPR scores in many existing charters,  charter schools’ practice of placing barriers to enrollment and failure to provide due process for students who are accused of infractions (often minor), the District’s expense in paying its own legal fees and those of the charter school when they face non-renewal. There has been very little oversight since the beginning; the Charter Schools Office currently employs 12 staff members–to oversee 87 charter schools. Charter CEOs are paid exorbitant salaries and compensation because each charter’s board makes that decision; the Board of Ed has no control over it. The hidden profits made by real estate companies and consultants is just part of the corruption made possible by the District’s lack of oversight.  APPS co-founder Karel Kilimnik asked the Board a question (which APPS had asked in a letter sent to the General Counsel weeks ago); who pays for the attorneys representing charter schools in an appeal processes? No one from the Board attempted to answer this question or even acknowledged the question.

There is a final hearing scheduled for January 22nd for Frederick Douglass and Joan Meyers Brown and one on the 23rd for Tacony; all will be held in the first floor Board conference room at 440.  Each charter applicant will have the opportunity to provide in-depth information about their applications at these hearings, and they will be asked questions by the Board-appointed hearing examiner.  The Board will vote on these applications at the February 28th meeting. APPS members will be attending all hearings and will be issuing researched reports on each of these applications. APPS stands with the Our City Our Schools Coalition (OCOS) in demanding a moratorium on all charter school expansion, whether through approving new charters or expanding seats in existing charters, until all Philadelphia public schools are made whole.  Charter school expansion will drain even more money from the District, delaying the District’s ability to provide safe, toxic-free, well-resourced public schools to all children.

Board Continues SRC Practice of Block Voting

The Board voted on 13 resolutions in 5 block votes.  Outside of three abstentions, all Items passed unanimously.  The recommendation from the Student Achievement Committee to postpone the Magnum contract was not mentioned. Is the Board violating its own by-laws when Committees fail to carry out recommendations–or even mention them on the record?

Concerns raised by educators about CLI were not addressed by Hite or by the Board before the vote. McGinley defended CLI and its reputation for quality without addressing the specific concerns of the educators now given no choice but to participate.  Those concerns included: ineffective coaches, conflict with district mandates, a one-size-fits-all approach, coaches reporting to principals about individual teachers, and more. These concerns went unanswered. Once again, teacher’s professional judgment is dismissed in favor of an administrative decision that dictates and doesn’t collaborate.  Fix Lopez admitted she did not know much about CLI, but was willing to spend $17 million for the next year to see whether or not it works. Experienced educators know that it takes at least three years to measure the success of any program. The Item passed unanimously.

Upcoming Meetings

The Finance and Facilities Committee will meet Thursday February 21 at 4 PM in the Board Conference Room. The Student Achievement Committee is scheduled for 6 PM the same day. The next Board Action Meeting will be Thursday February 28 at 5 PM in the 2nd floor auditorium.  (Dates and times of all upcoming meetings can be found on the Board of Education page of the SDP website.