by Diane Payne

This jam-packed Action Meeting convened at 5:00 p.m. and adjourned at 10.  As expected, many speakers lined up to address the ever-expanding toxic schools crisis.  Made explicit from the testimonies of staff, administrators, and parents: there is a serious disconnect between what the District claims it is doing to address this public health crisis and what students and staff see happening. Speakers cited the lack of consistent, thorough, and clear communication; the failure to involve stakeholders in decisions and plans; and a lack of compassion and humanity in addressing parent, student, and staff needs.  Those who stuck it out until the very end included members of the Caucus of Working Educators (WE) of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) and members of the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators (CASA). Some saw as disrespectful the Board’s failure to acknowledge the presence of CASA President Robin Cooper or to bring her up to the table sooner.

Two back-to-back rallies were held on the steps of 440 prior to the meeting.  The first, organized by Youth United for Change (YUC), addressed ongoing student concerns about mental health support (or lack of support) in District schools.  Next came a rally organized by WE Caucus members from McClure, Elkin, and Franklin Learning Center demanding that the District fix the asbestos problems at their schools.

APPS again publicly read into the record our objection to the Board’s continued violation of the PA Sunshine Act when voting on charter issues.  (More on this below.)

Present

President Joyce Wilkerson, Board Members Julia Danzy, Leticia Egea-Hinton, Mallory Fix Lopez, Lee Huang, Maria McColgan, Chris McGinley, and Angela McIver were  present; Vice President Wayne Walker participated by phone. Student Representatives Doha Ibrahim and Imere Williams also attended. Board member Angela McIver had to leave after the voting on Action Items; she was present to hear some of the public speakers on general topics. The District had only two binders of meeting materials, down from three at previous meetings. When Board members discuss Action Items, there is no way for those in attendance to know what they are talking about. This does not seem to concern the Board, since APPS members have made several verbal and written requests for adequate public documents at Action and Committee meetings.

The talented vocal and instrumental musicians from Franklin Learning Center (FLC) opened this long meeting with a beautiful medley of songs.  President Wilkerson said in her opening remarks that she was hopeful that needed charter school reform will take effect. Thirty statewide district administrators have joined together to demand and advocate for this needed change.  Wilkerson advised that the financially crushing results of unfettered charter growth on urban and rural districts is jeopardizing the very existence of public education, not to mention  the difficulty in enforcing even minimal accountability or transparency. Wilkerson encouraged stakeholders to stay active and involved and to urge elected officials to enact charter reform.

The ceremonial portion of the evening took up almost an hour as the Board, rather than honor one student and teacher of the month as usual,  gave awards to several with little mention of any individual achievements. Recognized were two student honorees and one teacher honoree for each of October, November, December, and January, along with eighteen new and nine renewing Board Certified Teachers.

Minutes of the December meeting were approved.  District Counsel Lynn Rauch cited pending litigation discussed by the Board in executive session.  The steep price of lawsuits can now be added to the bill coming due on the District’s failure to address infrastructure needs: three lawsuits related to toxic schools were listed, including one filed by the PFT.  Rauch included “charter schools” in the list of topics discussed in executive session. That constitutes another violation of the PA Sunshine Act by the Board.

Nine members of APPS attended this meeting; eight spoke in defense of public education.  You can read the APPS’ testimonies at the APPS website.

Superintendent’s Remarks

Superintendent Hite began with updates and explanations about his administration’s handling of asbestos abatement in some recently affected schools.  He said that “fear is understandable… but we are managing complex issues of large numbers of aging buildings”. This sounded to many subsequent speakers as yet another rationalization.  A Power-Point accompanied Hite’s remarks about the number of buildings affected, the amount of money allocated, and shared goals. (All videos, agendas, and Power-Points can be viewed by going to the District’s website and clicking on the BOE page)

Hite next addressed YUC’s demand for more mental health services for students.  He stated that he has met with students and is incorporating their demands in upcoming plans and that the District is working with the City to support these efforts.  (The District’s presentation was on the new behavioral health model.)

Hite expressed support of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) week of action.  He noted that next year the District will be incorporating a new framework incorporating concepts and content aligned with BLM vision to be introduced in June of 2020.  This new framework will include ways in which these concepts can be taught throughout the entire year, not just during Black History Month. Later, speakers who advocated for full District support were put off by President Wilkerson’s position that the issue should be addressed through an in-depth examination of District curriculum and policy. (McGinley told the Board, in response to those speakers, that he didn’t see “a down-side” to endorsing the BLM week, but he did not introduce a motion for the Board to vote on it.)

At the conclusion of Hite’s remarks, Board members questioned him  about the toxic schools crisis. Egea-Hinton asked about the academic makeup plans for schools affected by school closures.  Hite answered that some plans were being voted on tonight and others were in development. Plans include optional Saturday classes, scheduled make-up days, and home packets.  As she did last month, Fix Lopez addressed a prepared statement to Hite. She said that communication should not be left to “trust” but should be predicated on the accountability the public is demanding. After enumerating the administration’s areas of negligence, she reiterated her support and confidence in Hite, calling him the “cornerstone” of the District’s mission.

Fix Lopez went on to note that she objected to Action Item 9, a $20,000 contract with Drexel University to provide environmental safety consulting services through Dr. Arthur Frank, Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health.  She stated that no matter how many times she watched the video, she found it insulting rather than helpful.

President Wilkerson voiced her disagreement with Lopez and her support for Action Item 9, saying that after 30 years of neglect we should include any and all additional information.  McGinley, however, supported Fix Lopez’s statement and reminded the Board that the toxic situation is not just about 30 years of neglect. Rather than offer the same rationalizations heard from others–that these conditions existed since before they were in charge–McGinley apologized to parents and staff for “what they are going through right now”.

Committee Reports 

Once again, the Community Engagement Committee did not report. In fact, the Committee has not met in almost one year, since their second meeting in March 2019. They again turned the mic over to a member of their Parent and Advisory Board to deliver the information gathered that month.  Mr. Ty Jamar Thomas from North Philadelphia was the designated speaker. Despite repeated requests, this speaker’s name was not printed on the agenda materials; this is a disservice to the speaker and to the public. Random parent concerns relayed by Thomas included bullying, financial literacy, violence in the surrounding school neighborhood, and expulsions.  Mr. Thomas’ remarks can be viewed on the video from the meeting. Does this Committee plan to have any more public meetings?

Lee Huang presented the Finance and Facilities Committee report.  He called up Jim Creedon, Interim Chief of Facilities Management and Capital Projects, to provide information on the contracts for asbestos abatement.  (As a temporary consultant, Creedon has taken on the duties of former Facilities Chief Danielle Floyd.)

Creedon said the department is now working on finding eight locations across the city that can be identified as emergency accommodation sites to be accessed for school relocations.  The criteria for these buildings includes: minimum 400 student enrollment, access to public transportation, technology potential, safety, and environmentally stable. Sites will be vetted and brought before the Board for consideration at the February 27 Action Meeting. Creedon noted that passage of Action Items 21 and 26 will  increase the capacity for contractors to do the testing and remediation of asbestos. Action Item 51 proposes a $20 million dollar contract to provide assistance on the $500 million dollar capital project oversight.

Huang, pointing out that Creedon’s tenure is temporary, asked Hite to outline the long-term solution to staffing this position.  Hite responded that the District has contracted with a Boston group, District Management Group (DMG) (contract for which was approved at December 12 Action Meeting),  to evaluate exactly what the District needs in this area. Hite said he expects the results of this evaluation within the next week or so. Once the District has this information in hand, they intend to advertise for this position.  This is more than a little concerning to stakeholders as APPS’ research on DMG and founder John J-H Kim  points to their austerity-imposing, disrupting, corporate ideology.  DMG’s hefty $325,000 price tag for six months of work to give our District’s management management advice is another rabbit hole that does not bode well for defenders of public education.  As we asked in our December Eyes on the Board, Why Is District Management Hiring a District Management Company?


Huang noted that he looked into the status of the office of the Inspector General’s investigation and report on the Franklin/SLA asbestos situation.  He was happy to report that they informed him their efforts have been very thorough, although they would not give a time frame for completion, stating that “the investigation will take as long as the investigation takes.”  Huang also reported that the District is working on improving response and communication procedures with the PFT. So far, District’s response and communication have left parents, staff, and seemingly administrators out of the loop.  Huang cited the SDP “See Something, Say Something” website page where anyone can alert the District to concerns they see in buildings and said that the District will also be monitoring the PFT’s reporting app.

Marica McColgan gave the Policy Committee report. She named the policies coming up for review.  Details can be found on the Policy Committee video and meeting material page of the District website.

Angela McIver gave the Student Achievement report. No questions, comments, or presentations accompanied this report; all information regarding this committee meeting can be found on the BOE’s webpage.

Doha Ibrahim gave the Student Representative report.  Ibrahim encouraged students to follow the Student Reps on their social media sites and informed the public that a tutorial for encouraging student speakers at meetings like this Action Meeting is available on the SDP webpage.

Presentation on Student Behavioral Health

Commissioner David Jones of the City’s Department of Behavioral Health and Disability Services and Deputy Chief of the City’s Office of Child Services Dr. Tamra Williams narrated a Power-Point about proposed changes to Student Behavioral Health. Dealing with the mental health of students will continue to be a joint District and City effort.  The program, known as Intensive Behavioral Health Services (IBHS), will begin in the fall of 2020. Until it is initiated, the current program of Behavioral Health Rehabilitative Services (BHRS) and School Therapeutic Services (STS) will continue. The City officials stated that IBHS will include treatment and services for high school students (previously lacking), use three “evidence-based” treatment programs, strive for cultural and linguistic inclusion, seek improved coordination of care, improve collaboration and communication between service providers and school based staff, and support the navigation of the maze of Medicare and insurance paperwork.  The voices and concerns of students and administrators were heard on this, and it is hoped that the components of this new plan will address those concerns.

Public Speakers on Action Items

There were sixteen registered speakers on Action Items.  Three student speakers carried their concerns and demands on the District’s coverage and accountability in student mental health from the rally to the speaker podium.  One student speaker from the FLC music group (who had just performed) decried the condition of their auditorium and music resources.

Several APPS speakers pointed out the connection between District spending on charter schools and the toxic conditions in our schools.  Diane Payne linked the neglect of toxic conditions in public schools, affecting mostly black and brown children living in poverty, to the racist policy of financing privately run failing charter schools.  There are now about 53 “sub-districts”, comprised of eighty-seven charter schools with separate boards and administration, in the District. Many of these schools are failing in academic achievement on the School Progress Reports (SPRs). Many add to the increase in segregation by demographic manipulation of student bodies (hidden in many ways, including the unregulated use of lottery systems in charter schools). Charter CEO salaries, real estate deals, and management company fees enrich a chosen few at the expense of students and families.

Two schools up for renewal this month–Action Item 5, Green Woods Charter School and Action Item 6, Independence Charter School–are prime examples.  Green Woods had respectable achievement outcomes, but closer examination exposes the manipulation of demographics. The segregation effect is in full view here: overwhelmingly white and with far fewer students living in poverty compared to District schools.  Independence Charter School also shows demographic manipulation (slightly less so than Green Woods), but still had an achievement score in the (lowest) Interviene category.

Charter school Action Items, the only items that contain no text on the agenda other than the little information provided in the title of these items, listed a few Charter School Office (CSO) conditions.  None of the listed conditions addresses the segregation or achievement issues APPS raises.   Continued blanket support of charter schools (the item in the SDP budget which increases at a faster pace than any other) is a huge factor in the lack of resources available to our public school children.  Payne drew this connection and concluded her remarks by giving five copies of Ibrahim X Kendi’s book How to be an Antiracist to Board members, requesting they read and share with each other to help identify where the systemic racism lies in the District’s policies and practices.

APPS co-founders Lisa Haver and Karel Kilimnik, along with APPS members Deb Grill, Lynda Rubin, and Diane Payne, called on the Board to vote NO on both 2020 charter school applications: High School of Health Science Leadership (HS2L) and Joan Myers Brown/String Theory Charter School (JMBA).  APPS members have submitted written testimony as well, highlighting the many flaws and deficiencies in these applications and reminding the Board that the District cannot afford, nor does it need, any more charter schools. Kilimnik  testified about the deception practiced by the Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP) in its efforts to create a new charter school. As described by KHSA Principal Nimet Eren,  PSP visited Kensington Health Sciences Academy  and incorporated that experience in the charter school application. Kilimnik told the Board that HS2L’s founding coalition also falsely claimed in its application that Local 1199C endorsed the new charter. She read, with permission from the 1199C official, a portion of their letter to the Board sent in January:  “It was with dismay that I read that the District 1199C Training & Upgrading Fund was referenced in the PSP’s application to the Philadelphia Board of Education to establish the High School of Health Sciences Leadership Charter School. Including the Training Fund identifies our organization as actively engaging in providing feedback on establishing a healthcare charter school in Phila. This is not truthful.  1199C also requested the removal of the District 1199C Training & Upgrading Fund references from PSP’s application to establish the High School of Health Sciences Leadership Charter School as well as any other applications, grants, or similar writings without the expressed consent of the Fund”.

Several APPS members spoke in support of Action Item 47, Contract with the District 1199C Training & Upgrading Fund which supports and uplifts our District schools.  APPS member Ilene Poses delighted all as she finished her testimony with her now anticipated musical interpretation, this time with words amended to the tune of “Summertime”.  APPS member Zoe Rooney, along with several other District educators, decried Action Item 20, Contracts for Consulting Services for Business Process Design and Training. Special education areas were included in these consulting contracts, and the speakers’ general message to the Board was that the District should employ the expertise of its own staff rather than outsource to consultants. The Public School Notebook reported Rooney’s statement to the Board that “you cannot consult your way out of bad leadership.”

Barbara Dowdall continued her relentless advocacy to bring back Certified Teacher Librarians (CTLs)  into fully functioning school libraries. How is the Board okay with only seven CTLs in the entire District?  Once again, we see black, brown, poor children denied this basic service, one necessary to better teach children reading, writing, as well as analytical skills and supported by valid research.

Votes on Action Items

Voting took place following the speakers on Action Items.  The Board voted in one block on Action Items 1,2,7-9, 13-19, 21-51. Huang, McGinley, and Wilkerson abstained on Item 7; Huang abstained on item 8; Fix Lopez and McIver voted No on Item 9 and Huang Abstained; Fix Lopez abstained on Action Item 48. The remaining Items in this block passed unanimously; all Items in this block passed.  It is not possible for the public to know what the Board is voting on or how without any meeting materials to look at and follow along. 

 

Action Item 7: passed with 6 Yes, 3 Abstention

Action Item 8: passed with 8 Yes, 1 Abstention

Action Item 9: passed 6 Yes, 2 No, 1 Abstention

Action Item 48: passed with 8 Yes, 1 Abstention

The remaining Items in this block passed unanimously.

Action Item 3:  passed unanimously.

Action Item 4: passed with 8 Yes, 1 No (Julia Danzy)

Action Item 5 and Action Item 6: the two charter school renewals passed unanimously.  APPS stood at the beginning of this vote and read a public statement of objection to this vote as a violation of the PA Sunshine Act.  The Sunshine Act requires that no vote may be taken in secret. The Board’s failure to provide the text of the actual charter renewal agreement, or to read it into the record, constitutes a vote taken in secret.  Placing the full text in the online meeting materials the day after the vote–as though it was there at the time of the vote–constitutes a falsification of the public record. District Counsel Lynn Rauch acknowledged APPS objection for the record but, once again, none of the Board members responded. Why does the Board refuse to explain this ongoing charter protection–at the same time they tell people to lobby Harrisburg for charter reform?

Action Items 10 through 12: passed with unanimous Yes votes

Speakers on General Topics

Kudos to the eloquent and passionate speakers–District educators, parents and students–who waited hours to make sure the Board heard their experiences in toxic schools. Much of the testimony described the same kind of administration failures to alleviate this crisis. We have heard, at this meeting and previous meetings, the rationalization that this problem began before this Superintendent and this Board were in charge. But speaker after speaker reminded them that the problem must be fixed now and that there is no more time for further miscommunication and missteps.  The one bright spot in this awful health crisis is the awakening and uniting of District parents, staff, students, and administrators in a growing fight for the schools our students deserve.