Ears on the Board of Education: July 9, 2018

SB 7-9-18

by Diane Payne

Local Control Returns!

All nine members of the newly appointed Board of Education were present for this meeting, as were many elected officials and union representatives who took the opportunity to both welcome the new board and to thank them for taking on this difficult public service: Mayor James Kenney, Council President Darrell Clarke, Councilmembers Maria Quinones-Sanchez, Helen Gym, Jannie Blackwell, Derek Green, and CASA President Dr. Robin Cooper.

Seven of the nine APPS members in attendance spoke to welcome the board and to advise them that APPS’ mission of defending public education will continue. To see their testimonies, go to APPSPhilly.net.

The nine new board members are: Julia Danzy, Leticia Egea-Hinton, Mallory Fix Lopez, Lee Huang, Maria McColgan, Christopher McGinley, Angela McIver, Wayne Walker, and Joyce Wilkerson.

Election of Board Officers

In its first order of business, the board nominated and elected Chris McGinley to serve as president pro-tempore to manage the meeting until elections for president and vice president could be completed.  McGinley chaired the meeting through the public speakers and subsequent elections. The single nomination for President was Joyce Wilkerson; the subsequent vote was a unanimous “yes.” There were two nominations for Vice-president: Wayne Walker and Julia Danzy.  It was refreshing to see a public deliberation about each candidate prior to the vote. Walker was elected by a 5 to 4 vote. Joyce Wilkerson chaired the remainder of the meeting.

All of the board members took a turn at presenting their first public remarks about their duty to govern the School District of Philadelphia. Unfortunately, this was the first opportunity the public had to hear the views of their new representatives. The remarks all incorporated hope and optimism but were also embedded with the realism of the tough job ahead.  Chris McGinley’s emotional presentation included quotes from Tennyson. The audience responded to Angela McIver’s reminder of the importance of public schools in supporting democracy and embracing all of its sometimes loud and messy components.

Staff Presentation

In a break from the previous order of business under the SRC, the staff presentation was held after all public speakers.  It is not clear yet if this format will remain, but the public should be able to ask questions about all district business discussed at the meetings.  Even though most remarks are prepared ahead of time, speakers can adjust their remarks based on information provided by staff if they are speaking on that topic.

The sole staff presentation was by Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson on Tax and Revenue Anticipation Notes (TRANs), which is a borrowing mechanism that all public entities rely on to maintain a steady cash flow.  Resolution BOE-2 and Munson’s presentation can be accessed through the district website.

The district will borrow $250,000,000 from two banks totally $500,000,000 to carry them through the months of low cash flow.  All borrowed money must be repaid by June of 2019.

Parent & Community Engagement (or Lack Thereof)

Strawberry Mansion High School (SMSH): The ongoing controversy around the elimination of 9th grade from Strawberry Mansion High School  and the uncertain future of SMHS continues. Three public speakers decried the district’s closing of their comprehensive neighborhood high school.  Superintendent Hite denies this is a closing because the building will remain open and is projected to be the recipient of multi-million dollar “green initiative” upgrades.  But the Hite administration is closing 9th grade next year and is placing vendors and contractors in the building. Thus, the fate of this school remains uncertain.  The speakers requested the new BOE meet with community members and reverse the June 21st decision to eliminate 9th grade.  It remains to be seen how the BOE responds to this community’s request. In the past, these community members poured their heart out to the SRC and Hite for their allotted 3 minutes and were steamrolled anyway.

Mayfair Elementary:  One speaker, who represented the large community contingent present at the last meeting, addressed the controversy of moving Mayfair’s K and 1 students into a renovated space at Austin Meehan Middle School.  This was another example of the district ignoring a festering problem in the making for probably a decade (Northeast Philly schools continue to bulge at the seams), then arbitrarily deciding on a quick fix. This district decided solution was sprung on the Mayfair community in May.  No community engagement.  No parent involvement. No shared decision making.  

There are numerous concerns around this move.  Mayfair’s youngest students will be bussed to Meehan, separating siblings and straining family caregiving needs.  Meehan is part of the Lincoln High School campus. Our youngest students sharing campus facilities with older students is a serious concern.  In addition, the physical condition of Meehan includes all of the toxic health issues recently highlighted in the Inquirer series “Toxic City”.  It is hard to have faith in district officials when they assure parents the building will be ready and safe for their children on August 27th–just weeks away.  Finally, Austin Meehan is slated for demolition in 2 years. Money and effort are being poured into a building that will be shortly demolished. Mayfair has asked for modular classroom solutions to their overcrowding problem so as to keep the young students at Mayfair but have been told it is not an option.  But at the June 21st SRC meeting, Resolution SRC-48 was approved for modular components at the Solis-Cohen campus, a nearby Northeast school. Yet another example of a lack of district engagement with families and communities.

Ad Prima Charter School Relocation: At the May 24th SRC meeting, the relocation amendment submitted by Ad Prima C.S. was approved (SRC-8).  APPS questioned this approval from Kensington to Cedarbrook in Mt. Airy, which is 8 miles away with an hour public transportation travel time.  How does a Charter School just up and leave one community to relocate all the way across the city to another community? How does that engender stability and neighborhood investment?  Even more importantly, APPS questioned whether the receiving community was involved, engaged or even informed before this decision was made. The answer, once again, was NO. The attitude on the part of the SRC seemed to be: why should the receiving community have any say in what happens in their neighborhood?

The Cedarbrook community found out about the Ad Prima relocation inadvertently; no notice was sent by the District. Two community members representing the receiving neighborhood came to protest this move by Ad Prima and to request that the district reconsider based on their input. There is one public school right across the street from Ad Prima’s new location and two other public schools within one mile.  What is the message for these public schools?   Why do public school families have to beware of sharks circling?  

Again, it will be interesting to see how the new BOE reacts and handles these very real concerns and the very real disservice to the existing community.

Efforts at Real Community Engagement

The new BOE announced the formation of several committees to do some real leg work before Action Meetings.  The hope is that the work of the committees will help to inform the decisions made at Action Meetings (up until 2011, the SRC held both a Planning Meeting and an Action Meeting each month).  These committees will be composed of several board members; the BOE is encouraging public participation. At this meeting, President Wilkerson sought the input of each board member on committees they hoped to be involved with so she could make decisions and announce the committee members and committee chairs at the August 16th BOE meeting.  The four committees are: Finance, Student Achievement, Policy, and Community Engagement. This is a hopeful sign of public engagement.

Next Meeting of the Board

The next meeting of the BOE is scheduled for Thursday, August 16th at 5:00 p.m. in the 2nd floor auditorium at 440 N. Broad Street.  If you wish to speak at this meeting, call 215-400-4180 by 4:30 p.m. on the day before the meeting.