Ears on the Board of Education: June 24, 2021

By Lynda Rubin

This last Board Action meeting of the 2020-21 school year should have been a time for the Board to reflect on the difficulties encountered during this past school year and the weaknesses of the Hite administration to provide a cohesive and well executed reaction to the pandemic. Yet  the meeting was mostly business as usual. One victory:  the board is now hearing all public speakers before the Goals and Guardrails data analysis that has gone on for up to two hours at each meeting. APPS pointed out to the Board that parents who must feed and put their children to bed and teachers preparing for the next day’s lessons cannot wait for hours to be heard.  When we fight, we win! 

All Board members were present: President Joyce Wilkerson, Vice President Leticia Etea-Hinton, Angela McIver, Mallory Fix Lopez, Julia Danzy, Reginald Streater, Cecelia Thompson, Lisa Salley and Maria McColgan, along with current Student Representatives Keylisha Diaz and Toluwanimi Olaleye. Both Student Reps have contributed insights and suggestions throughout the year. Among their recommendations: a hub on the District’s website for mental health concerns and services; separate counselors for academic and behavioral/mental health issues; at least two counselors in every school; more funding for after-school activities and programs; that Student Board members have the same voting rights as adult Board members. 

Also present were both incoming Student Board Representatives. Rebecca Allen is a rising junior at Central High School, an IBD (International Baccalaureate Degree) student, and an advocate for student issues. Amando Ortiz is a rising Northeast High School senior with dual-enrollment courses at Community College of Philadelphia whose interests include advocating for social justice and “ensuring that there are safe, comfortable spaces for students who lack a home or family.” Mayor Kenney made an appearance in which he thanked the outgoing Representatives for their service and welcomed those moving into those positions.  The Board voted to accept Rebecca Allen and Amando Ortiz into their new positions.  

President Wilkerson opened the meeting by thanking the Board-appointed Parent Engagement Committee. Although never an official part of the agenda, a PEC member usually gives a report during each Action Meeting. The Board does not post full information about the PEC meetings or post minutes. Considering the difficulty of actually meeting in person this past year, we would hope that the Committee has been successful in finding other avenues to engage in dialogue with parents and keep them informed of key issues. Parents currently have difficulties publicly engaging the Board itself and when they do, Board practice has been to listen but rarely to respond. 

Board Continues Outsourcing District Business

The Board passed all seventy items on the agenda, many to outsource District business to private companies. There was little to no comment from the Board about any plans to redress genuine student inequities that were exposed by the pandemic. The Board apparently believes that simply placing a description of an action or an issue on the District’s website substitutes for public discussion and timely notification. In fact, many parents who work both outside and inside the home don’t have time to navigate the District website regularly to find timely information. APPS members and others have complained over the years that banners for meetings do not appear on the home page or in sufficient time.  Local input about issues that affect student progress, a neighborhood’s specific needs and/or strengths should always be included at open Board meetings. The Administration continues to rely on its own surveys.  But surveys only reflect answers to the District’s specific questions without room to raise other concerns of both parents and teachers.  They may sound official, but often the assurances given about questions to the increasing use of private companies doesn’t even match the concern being expressed. Public education functions best when it brings up its own experienced educators into administrative positions instead of relying on prescriptive responses by outside business sources composed with little to no experience in teaching children. The Board approved $154, 646, 431 in spending at this meeting. 

Board Again Denies New Charter Application

After their first application this spring for an all-boys K-12 (at scale) charter school targeting the Northwest section of the city was denied, The Collegiate School Foundation submitted a revised application, as permitted by state law. The Collegiate School Foundation, a Baltimore company that operates Baltimore Collegiate School for Boys, currently operates a grades 4-8 middle school of 477 students in that city.  The Charter School Office (CSO) evaluation noted that evaluations of the Baltimore school repeated the term “Not Effective” in all areas (academic, organizational and financial).  There has been no attempt by this company to expand their school to include K-3 or 9-12 in Baltimore and they have no experience in running any school other than the one current middle school. And yet, this charter company seems to be in a hurry to plant their flag here and expand their brand into Philadelphia even without having a solid product in Baltimore. The CSO Evaluation Report stated that the revised application was not substantially different than the original. There are still significant deficiencies in Academic, Organizational and Financial areas and many other areas of PA state compliance and lack of cohesive and credible plan by the founders. APPS members Karel Kilimnik, Lisa Haver, Ilene Poses and Barbara Dowdall again urged the Board to deny. 

The Board voted unanimously to Deny the revised application. 

Four students and twenty-six “Regular”  (non-student) speakers followed. Topics included voting against the reapplication of the Philadelphia Charter School for Boys, in favor of the contract for the 9th grade Outward Bound program, in favor of the “Healing Together… for School Reopening” and in favor of the Welcoming Sanctuary Schools Resolution. Carly Pourzand, a member of 215 People’s Alliance, spoke about the need for increased Summer Camp accessibility, especially for emergent English speakers and bi-lingual students. Although the District says they offer such programs, Pourzand stated that families have said they do not provide sufficient support to communities. 

APPS member Diane Payne asked the Board, as she has in previous testimony, to explain the costs included in “change orders”, this time in Item #34. Change orders include regular items on Board agendas as the District seeks to amend either the length, terms or finances of a previous project, lumping them all into a “simple extension” of disparate contracts. Payne dove deeper into the costs that  add to the District’s expenditures with no explanation about what they are and why they’re necessary. Such change orders appear on the agenda of many Board meetings throughout the year. 

A former teacher at the West Philadelphia Achievement Charter School urged the Board not to renew that school’s charter, adding that the school should  be closed because of a hostile environment to both staff and students. She told the Board that “other than being the victim of a home invasion”, her employment at the charter school was the worst experience of her life. The Board remained silent. 

Item #54, Contracts with Various Vendors for Online Courses and Adaptive Interventions for $15 million, is a return item which failed at the April 22, 2021 meeting by a vote of 6-1, with Wilkerson dissenting and Thompson and Streater abstaining.  McIver read a statement opposing the use of these on-line interventions. The item creates an approved vendor list for K-12 “On-line Adaptive Interventions and On-line Courses”. The item would approve 3-year contracts, with two 1-year renewals each for Achieve 3000, Curriculum Associates for three iReady systems, Edgenuity for “secondary courseware”, Imagine Learning for 5 programs, Lexia for two systems and iStation Reading program. The description includes allowing schools to purchase, from their own budgets, additional resources from these vendors. There has been much criticism of the use of these online systems. McIver stated she would vote No. Fix Lopez stated that she voted No the first time the contracts were proposed, citing concerns she still had about their misuse “if not correctly implemented”. She said she was now voting Yes, but did not explain why. Hite responded that when the Action Item was presented at the April meeting, there was not sufficient information about how they’d be used. Actually, no real new information about how they’d be used was added to Item #54. This raises the question about why any contracts would be brought to the Board for a vote without sufficient description and information about how to use the programs and whether they meet the specific needs of our students. Another point was Fix Lopez’s raising the need for “guidance of a trained Literacy Expert”. Principals’ union  CASA 502, PFT members, and specialists for particular needs in the District have been vocal at Board meetings and in the press about the need for a “Literacy Resource Lead Specialist” as one of five administrative staff necessary in every school (in addition to Assistant Principal, Math Resource Lead Specialists, Counselors and Climate Resource Managers) in order to have a well-functioning educational program–not programs and staff brought in from businesses selling their products or obtaining temporary staff on the cheap. 

These supports are especially needed in a District with students who have so many needs and who have fallen behind. The District has added one or two of such personnel in various schools for next school year, but has not made a concerted effort to add all necessary resource personnel in every school, despite pleas from their own local school administrative principals.  Yet contracts with companies for on-line programs and courses and outside professional development are still being pushed as substitutes for on-site, trained educational personnel, versed in Philadelphia issues, who would provide invaluable service to the entire school population and staff. 

Thompson objected to the contracts because “our children have been on-line for two years; this is the wrong time”. She also cited costs to individual school budgets, stating that the District can’t afford the licenses involved, especially in all of the languages needed in many schools. Thompson requested “hard data” that these programs were useful and questioned whether they were being used correctly. She also stated that only one program was included for Spanish-speaking students, when there is a growing number of neighborhood schools with students who speak many other languages. Hite countered by raising Tier 2 and Tier 3 use that still didn’t address the objections. Egea-Hinton stated that while she’d voted against this Item last time, she would vote Yes, this time because “some people have said they rely on it.” The vote passed with 7 Board Members voting Yes and 2 voting No. McIver and Thompson voted No. 

The Board unanimously approved Item #64, The Welcoming Sanctuary Schools Resolution which pledges to keep schools safe and welcoming places for all immigrant students, regardless of citizenship status. The District will keep students safe from immigrant authorities while at school or in school activities. Board members Egea-Hinton and Fix Lopez worked with the advocacy group Juntos, which began advocating for such a resolution since the time a pregnant mother was detained in 2020 by ICE in front of a South Philadelphia public school after dropping off her daughter.  

The Board remained silent during all of the public testimony except to address one person. There was little deliberation or comment during the voting on the 70 items. 

Board members questioned Hite about Item #60, Contract with the Reading and Writing Project Network LLC for Learning Network 3 for $288,000. Hite cited the gains made in Learning Network 3 as evidence of its success. Fix-Lopez recognized that Learning Network 3 is made up of several “high functioning schools” which could skew that data. Hite responded that the program started in a few schools and expanded. He also said the program would need “intensive teacher development” and that Network 3 staff would train those in other Networks. Thompson questioned whether District teachers need to learn how to teach reading and writing. Fix Lopez cited “the antiquated reading and writing standards in Pennsylvania” without giving any specifics on which institutions of higher learning were not adequately educating future teachers. (Fix Lopez is a faculty member at Community College.) The Item passed unanimously.  

As usual, several Action Items lumped into the “consent agenda” were voted on in a block. Although never explained, the consent agenda apparently consists of Items that Board members have agreed not to comment on during the meeting. Board members passed 58 of the 70 Items without comment, all unanimously, with the exception of Fix Lopez voting No on Item #4, School Board Policies. 

Thompson also questioned Hite about Item #38 (Contracts with ABM Inc and Team Cleaning for Supplemental Cleaning Staff ($3,000,000) and  #41 (Amendment of Contract with Atalian Global Services Inc, for Custodial Services – $10,000,000.):  “Why not just hire people at a fair wage to do custodial services rather than outsource at considerable expense?” She reiterated the question, “Is it that difficult to hire people at a fair wage and not contract out?” when Hite gave a less than adequate explanation about the District’s inability to hire sufficient personnel. Hite further shifted blame to the District’s downsizing decisions made several years ago.  APPS has continually raised this issue about the growing costs of the number of the contracts being outsourced to companies by this and previous Boards (begun under the SRC) at the expense of a solid workforce of District employees. Twenty-nine of the thirty consent items passed unanimously with the exception of #4. Upon voting, Fix Lopez voted “No” to #4 (School Board Policies) without comment. Thompson abstained from voting on Item #24, Amendment of Contract with Visual Sound for Classroom Interactive Technology and Services ($20,000,000) without citing a reason. This contract regards purchase, installation and maintenance of classroom interactive panels and audio-visual systems and related technology to support hybrid and digital instruction. 

The Board will hold its next Action meeting on July 15th, 2021 at 4 PM. The only items on this agenda, to date, are a presentation and vote on Tax and Revenue Anticipation Notes, as required annually and Goals and Guardrails discussion. Any changes and additions to the prospective agenda can be found at https://www.philasd.org/schoolboard/meetingmaterials/. The Board has given no information about when it will return to in-person meetings.