By Diane Payne
In the first week of July, the Board placed a notice of an Action Meeting in its online calendar. The Board placed no banner on the District homepage, and the agenda was not posted until 72 hours before the meeting. The obvious reason to add a special meeting was to discuss the District’s fall reopening plan, but the Agenda contained twenty-six Items. All eight Board members were present. Mayor Kenney has taken no steps to fill the ninth seat, vacant since Chris McGinley resigned in April. The Mayor’s Nominating Panel, which met earlier this year to fill Wayne Walker’s seat, could easily be reconvened to fill this one, and the Mayor could choose from the list of candidates already compiled. In both 2018 and 2020, the Mayor ordered the Panel to meet only in Executive Session, thus violating the state’s Sunshine Act and shutting out the public from the entire process. The abolition of the state-controlled SRC did not result in true local control but in mayoral control.
The Board allowed 153 speakers to register to speak for three minutes each, setting the stage for an 8-hour meeting. Sixteen written testimonies were submitted. Every speaker on the topic of Hite’s reopening plan testified against passing it, urging the Board to vote No on Item 15. The meeting ended, but did not adjourn, after eight and a half hours. Three members of APPS testified at the meeting, and three sent in written testimony. (All APPS testimony can be viewed on the APPS website.)
District, City, SEPTA Officials Sell Reopening Plan
The meeting opened with three presentations on the reopening plan. Hite narrated his updated hybrid plan. City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley and another doctor from the City Health Department represented Mayor Kenney’s position that school buildings should reopen. During questioning from Board members, during which Maria McColgan referred to ventilation as a “buzzword”, Farley downplayed the need for proper ventilation. At a press conference just hours before, however, Farley told reporters that the City would not allow full restaurant reopening: “It’s unsafe because people are indoors where there’s less ventilation”. Not clear is whether Farley and the Mayor believe that students and teachers are not people or that classrooms are not indoors.
Assistant General Manager of SEPTA Scott Sauer outlined the SEPTA safety precautions in his effort to sell the public on the District’s reopening plan, citing the cleaning of vehicles and the mask-wearing of riders. But when Julia Danzy asked whether people were required to wear masks to ride, Sauer admitted that they could not bar those who refused to wear them.
The Hite plan has come under fire from all members of the School District community: teachers, principals, support staff, students, parents, and community members. Listening to District, City and SEPTA officials navigate the facts in an effort to assure everyone that it’s safe to reopen schools only leads to a further erosion of trust. Farley actually said ventilation is not an important factor in concerns of infection spread. Is it possible that the City of Philadelphia’s Health Commissioner, who advises the public on COVID-19 at regular information sessions, could be unfamiliar with the CDC document that not only advises buildings to have proper ventilation but to check for mold, as well as insect and rodent infestations? It is terribly unsettling to see our students, staff, and families thrown under the bus in such a cavalier manner.
Those who assumed that this special Board meeting was called only to consider the reopening plan were surprised to see that the Agenda contained 26 official Items, most of which appeared not to be essential. The board held no committee meetings this month. The Board was prepared to vote to spend over $190 million with little to no public deliberation. Many spending items, such as those for professional development, needed clarification on how they could be implemented in the hybrid reopening plan. In addition, the Board posted the agenda with the Action Items three days before the meeting. In November 2016, APPS settled a Sunshine Act violation lawsuit with the SRC and District. That settlement stipulates that the District will post agenda items two weeks prior to any Action Meeting. This represents the latest in a pattern of violations by the Board. The School District of Philadelphia struggles for fair funding from all levels of government–federal, state, and city. When the Board spends those hard-won funds on an apparent Hite administration wish list, without public examination or deliberation, that amounts to a dereliction of duty. There should be no vote on expenditures unless there is a full explanation of the essential nature of the Item through either committee meeting presentation, Action Meeting presentation, or fully detailed Action Item text. The written testimony of APPS’ co-founder Karel Kilimnik and member Payne highlight various Action Items and the questions inherent in each. APPS co-founder Lisa Haver further warned in her testimony about Board spending on outside contracts in a time of crisis. These testimonies can be viewed on the APPS website.
Although the cowardly outcome of this meeting generated anger and frustration, the solidarity of this huge cross-section of speakers presented a shining pillar of hope. All sectors of the school community spoke with fierce voices and a unified message. The people are going to take back their schools! The Philadelphia school community is waking up and coming together to protect each other, to care about each other, to support each other. Our schools, teachers, students, and communities matter, and we will not roll over and play dead anymore. Speakers were in unanimous agreement that a school reopening plan that puts children and staff in buildings is not okay. We will fight for the health and lives of our school families. Speakers were in agreement that racism has been white-washed for long enough in Philadelphia schools and that is not okay. People will fight for meaningful and engaged change, not settle for lip service and empty promises. Speaker after speaker questioned Hite on how leveling would affect school communities but got no meaningful answer. What no one denied–not Hite nor any Board member–is that leveling teachers due to digital academy enrollment could result in the decimation of school communities. The devastation from the closing of 23 neighborhood schools closed in 2013 would pale in comparison to the chaos this could inflict. It would be a true Shock Doctrine strategy.
Board Turns Its Back on the People
This remote meeting began at 4:00 p.m. Eight hours later, after the last public speaker, Board President Wilkerson again called on Hite to respond. Hite again said that there was a lot to consider from all the testimonies. He asked that the Board call a recess on the Action Items to give him a week to review all of the points made by speakers. Wilkerson clarified that he was suggesting the entire list of Action Items; Hite responded yes, that nothing was time-sensitive. Not even, apparently, the $190 million that had been so essential it was added at the last minute. Vice-President Leticia Egea-Hinton then introduced a motion to recess for one week, the reopening plan. A visibly angry Angela McIver interrupted, asking her fellow Board members whether they were really going to just ignore seven hours of unanimous public testimony and do nothing. Several Board members followed with a bewildering display of waffling and rationalization, actually misrepresenting the testimony of over one-hundred speakers. Board members made comments such as “let’s take a week to be sure we get it right”, “ some parents say they want hybrid” (no one said that at the meeting, but if referring to the surveys, they were before the COVID-19 case increases), “give the administration time to reflect on everything said tonight”. These twisted comments displayed a contempt for the unified message delivered to this Board.
Where is the leadership? Where is the sense of urgency? Where is the respect for the community? The vote to recess passed 6-2 with McIver and Huang voting against it. This meeting is to be continued on July 30th at 4:00 p.m. Much was lost with that vote, not the least of which was the community’s trust in the Board to keep them safe. Also lost: One week of precious time. Credibility. Belief in the Board’s ability to lead.
The Board’s chosen format–to disappear for hours behind a full-screen countdown clock while the public speaks–has revealed a number of new ways in which the Board is violating the public’s right to attend a truly public meeting. At the end of the Speakers on Action Items, when the Board was scheduled to vote, Wilkerson came on to say that they were going to continue with the Speakers on General Topics. None of the Board members objected to Wilkerson’s amending the agenda without a Board vote, and none asked for an explanation. It appeared that it had already been discussed and approved. Well into the speakers portion of the agenda, President Wilkerson was heard asking someone, presumably Dr. Hite, “Do you want to recess before we vote on anything?” District Counsel Lynn Rauch immediately advised Wilkerson that she was not on mute, and the conversation ended quickly. What was happening behind the scenes? This calls into question adherence to the requirements of public deliberation required by the PA Sunshine Act. Were all deliberations being held in public or were decisions being decided behind the scenes? Was the Board, in effect, conducting improper executive sessions out of the public eye? We intend to find out.