Ears on the Board of Education: March 25, 2021

by Diane Payne

“I can’t believe what you say because I see what you do.” James Baldwin

For the second month in a row, the Board of Education denied some members the opportunity to speak on official items and matters of concern. Due to the Board’s arbitrary changes in public speaking policy, an unknown number of people have been silenced.  Without public announcement, debate, discussion, or vote, the Board instituted a speaker policy change that caps the number of student speakers at ten and adult speakers at thirty, and reduces speaking time from three minutes to two.  Even the School Reform Commission did not resort to outright silencing of the public. The PA Sunshine Act protects citizens’ right to meaningfully participate in their governments and to be heard on all official business.  Shocked reaction to this speaker suppression  has come from staff, Parents, students, community members, local politicians, the Education Law Center, and the ACLU. Those objections have fallen on the deaf ears of a Board that touts public engagement while silencing the public. APPS and UrbEd, represented by the ACLU, have filed suit to reverse the speaker policy changes in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas.

Sign our petition here to tell the Board: Stop the Suppression of Public Speakers!

Wilkerson Urges Charter Reform in Harrisburg While Board Continues to Protect Substandard Charters

All nine members of the Board were present along with the two Student Representatives, Superintendent Hite, and Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson.  The meeting began with President Wilkerson, chairing the remote meeting,  endorsing the return of students to “safe” in-person learning. Wilkerson applauded the 133 speakers who registered to speak at the March 18 hearing, one of  two annual meetings mandated by the City Home Rule Charter for the sole purpose of hearing public concerns. The Board may have heard the concerns but they failed to address any of them at that meeting or this one.  Since speaker rules are subject to the whims of the Board, there was no cap on speakers and all had three minutes to speak. Finally, Wilkerson requested the public tell their representatives in Harrisburg to vote for Governor Wolf’s proposed charter reforms.  Of course, the Board itself ignores calls for charter reform at home and continues to prop up failing charters, both citywide and Renaissance. This Board, just as the SRC before it, protects failing charters by delaying renewals, negotiating with charter operators in secret, and letting non-renewals languish.  Two weeks ago, APPS wrote to the Board asking why they had put a hold on the non-renewal process for Universal Bluford and Universal Daroff, whose legal hearings had concluded almost six months ago. Wilkerson replied, in essence, that the Board had nothing to say about it. Thus the charter gravy train rolls on, benefitting charter investors and their affiliated real estate and management companies, at the expense of students and taxpayers. The Board must get its own charter school house in order.

Superintendent Hite’s Remarks

Hite briefly described the reopening of buildings to Pre-K through Grade 2 students.  He announced the Phase II Learning Model Selection Survey, opening on Tuesday, April 6th, and closing on Tuesday, April 13th, for all parents of students in grades 3-5 and students with complex needs in grades 6-8 only.  Those choosing hybrid will return on April 26th; this would mean a total of about twelve days of in-building instruction for those students before this school year ends.  

Hite told the Board that he hopes to have a District COVID dashboard up and running “soon”.  The dashboard will contain information on District-wide cases of COVID with school-by-school breakdown. There was no dashboard information posted or even promised until the District was embarrassed into it by members of Parents United for Public Education and the Caucus of Working Educators who took the matter into their own hands.  Hite has been trying to reopen buildings since September–why hasn’t a dashboard been part of his plan?

Board Member Egea-Hinton asked who gives the final “schools are ready to open” sign-off.  Hite’s answer brought more questions than answers: the building engineer, facility area coordinators, members of Hite’s staff, and the principal.  That seems to create a situation in which no one–at the school or at 440–has to take responsibility for the filthy conditions of those deemed “safe” to reopen as documented by educators who posted pictures of mouse poop and leaking ceilings on social media. Egea-Hinton did not ask any follow-up questions. 

Board Member Fix Lopez remarked that the COVID dashboard is a piece of transparency that the public should not have had to ask for.  She asked whether the demographics of the people contracting COVID would be available.  Hite said he would be able to get that information but it wouldn’t be on the dashboard.  Fix Lopez then asked Hite to confirm or refute rumors that have circulated on social media that the District was testing 20% of the students weekly and that the testing was ending in five weeks. Hite said the testing would continue into the Fall.  Fix Lopez did not  ask for clarification on that other social media rumor about expiring COVID tests for nurses to administer to students.  Still no answer for that rumor.  

Board Member Salley asked about hospitalization tracking and the protocol to follow when cases appear. Hite replied that this comes from a statewide system overseen by the Pennsylvania Department of Public Health. When Salley asked about older students returning to buildings, Hite said only those older students dependent on specialized testing such as AP, ROTC, and CTE would be returning to buildings in order to complete the tests needed for those programs.  But social media posts during the meeting indicated that unless the District had an undisclosed plan, some of those students would be missing these required assessments because they were coming up so fast and no plan has been shared with those educators or students.  No Board member questioned the timeline of the assessments or asked about the plan to get those students into buildings.

Board Member Streater asked how it was going for educators already back in buildings and facing yet another approach to instruction.  Hite did admit that teachers are again facing a learning curve that is challenging.  He said that “teachers are learning as they are doing.”  In fact, teachers are again being forced to build the plane as they are flying it.  (To watch the entire Board meeting, go to the Board of Education page of the District website and click on “Watch previous Board meetings”  or go to the Meeting Materials page to view the agenda and presentation.)

Lump Sum Budget Presentation

Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson’s presentation included the lump sum statement for SY 2021/22 as well as the five year projection to SY 2026.  (This entire PowerPoint can be viewed in the Board’s Meeting Materials section.)  Monson began with some positives,  including funding of  increased virtual learning capacity, increased social/emotional support (seemingly consisting of hotlines), and increased facility improvements.  Monson told the Board of his office’s approach to the one-time stimulus infusion of $1 billion. The PowerPoint listed: 

  • Imperative to use one-time funding on one-time expenses that maximize short-term pandemic response and achieve long-term impact. 
  • Commitment to using most of the new relief funds for new investments to meet those goals. 
  • Maintain District approach to achieving long-term fiscal stability. 

Monson identified four focus areas: 1) support education recovery and accelerated learning; 2)  expand facilities improvement; 3) support social/emotional needs; 4) more supports in schools.  Noteworthy in Focus area 4 is the dreaded and harmful “leveling” in which the Administration  “right-sizes” class numbers to reflect the highest number of students contractually permitted in every class in the District.  This results in placing more teachers in overcrowded classrooms but removing teachers from schools and classes if the number of students falls below the contractual limit.  The harm and chaos this causes is well documented and a perennial item of discontent and chaos.  Monson stated that there will be no “downward leveling” for the school year 2021/22. That is, no classes will be collapsed resulting in students losing their teacher.  For school years 2021/22 and 2022/23, the District will not “downward-level” any schools in the “off-track” category of the Board’s Goals and Guardrails.

Egea-Hinton raised the possibility of not approving Action Item 36 on the school calendars for the next two school years as it still included the general term “leveling”.  Monson replied  that this was necessary because of the Philadelphia Federation of Teacher (PFT) contract language that imposed a deadline for leveling. Both Monson and Hite talk about leveling as if it were required by PFT members rather than imposed by the Administration. Actually, the PFT contract language attempts to mitigate the harm of leveling.  Board members indicated they would introduce an amendment to Action Item 36 to include language about no downward leveling so it is clear what will occur.  

The public should take a look at how the District outlines its plan for the $1billion stimulus money.  There was nothing in the presentation that indicated stakeholders would be involved in any discussion about how this stimulus money should be spent.  Board President Wilkerson’s first inquiry confirmed this when she asked that very question:  how did Hite intend to engage the public in a discussion about this $1billion?  Hite had no plan to report but suggested the District could do a survey.  Once again the Board failed to hold Hite accountable for having no intention of soliciting public engagement, allowing him to pass the buck to Chief of Evaluation, Research, and Accountability Tonya Wolford to “see if we can get something together.”  

No Board member called out Hite for failing to include public engagement. Instead his assertion that stimulus questions can be included in a District wide survey satisfied not only Wilkerson but all Board members.  

The phrase “reimagining education” kept coming up in this follow-up discussion.  Stakeholders who routinely get burned by non-educators reimagining education with the full support of administrations far removed from classrooms (if they even had significant classroom experience) are justifiably skeptical in what will be “reimagined” for them and their students.  (The follow-up discussion on the budget begins around the 50 minute time stamp on the District’s video of this meeting.)

Will Policy Committee Make More Policy Changes in Secret?

Policy Committee Chair Maria McColgan noted that the policies in Action Item 6 were for review only and would not be voted on at this meeting.  She then reported that the Charter School Office has requested that the Board add an amendment to the administrative procedures that their office uses for Charter School renewal evaluations.  They will be requesting a change in these procedures to reflect the hardships resulting from the pandemic. Stakeholders should pay close attention to what is being asked for in this amendment and the duration of the request.  McColgan noted that there is no Board vote needed for a change in “procedures.”  This requires close public scrutiny on what is being proposed and for how long.  The next remote Policy Committee meeting is scheduled for April 15th at 4:00 p.m.

APPS Raises Sunshine Act Objection

Prior to the meeting, Lisa Haver had sent the Board, on behalf of APPS, a formal objection to the Board’s continuing violations of the PA Sunshine Act. The objection asked that she be allowed to state the objection to the Board just before the official votes, as allowed in Section 710 © of the Act. (At the February meeting, General Counsel Lynn Rauch told the Board that APPS had sent in an objection without stating the nature of the objection, which is itself a violation.) Rauch read part of the objection to the Board but again did not state the details. When Haver was called on to testify later, she asked whether she would be given time to state the entire objection. Rauch said no. Haver then took part of her two minutes to explain that the point of stating the objection was to notify the entire Board so that any one of them could rectify the violation–in this case, that the Board had denied the right to speak to members of the public on official items. None of the Board members spoke up.

Student Speakers

Only four of the nine students on the list testified. Of those, two were not on the line when called but were connected later. Some were high school students who said that they wanted to be able to return to their school buildings.  It is surely understandable that students want to return to normal, it cannot be ignored that these are not normal times. There has been a catastrophic loss of life in the city, the nation, and around the world.  In addition, the Hite administration has not yet verified that all buildings are environmentally safe. The pandemic has devastated communities of color and the economically disadvantaged. Many of the parents and students asking for a District-wide reopening have been predominantly from the whitest and wealthiest schools. That must be considered if the Board is truly committed to equity. Parent Stephanie King reminded the Board when she testified that over 65% of parents are still opting to keep their children home and learning virtually.

Goals and Guardrails Marathon Data Analysis

The meeting convened at 5 PM.  The G & G analysis began at 6:45 (before adult public speakers) and ended an hour and a half later at 8:15. (This portion of the meeting begins at about timestamp 1:47 on the Board video.) The discussion centered on Goal 1,  Reading grades 3-8.  It included all the graphs, color-coded boxes, and edu-jargon you would expect when reducing real students and real teachers to data points. (This PowerPoint is in the agenda and can be viewed on the Meeting Materials page.)  After an hour and twenty minutes of this, Wilkerson asked how the District will be able “to do so much more with the same resources?” The District’s educators, even without hours of data analysis, know the answer:  You can’t.  One problem is the Administration’s top-down approach to just about everything that subverts the professionalism of teachers–but not addressed in the G&G nor in the Board’s questioning.

One Board Member did ask Hite about the increasing number of forms and assessments required of educators and the need for an audit to determine their usefulness,  one example being a “Failure Prevention Form”.  Hite tefloned away the inquiry by noting this was not a central office-generated form. That is not an answer. Again, no one on the Board followed up to ask who and why extra forms were being generated at any level.  
Why are there so few follow-up questions to obvious non-answers from Hite? The Board members are put on notice by Wilkerson and the G & G facilitators that their time for comments and questions is limited. And not one Board member protests or demands time to get a meaningful answer. It is the perfect spectacle in which Board members pretend to hold Hite accountable but never pin him down on anything.

Board Enforces Speaker Suppression

Of the thirty registered speakers, nine speakers did not respond when called. Thus the Board heard from only twenty-one members of the public. The Board banned at least four people from speaking by closing the sign-up window.  Eight speakers were cut off mid-sentence at the end of exactly two minutes. 

Several more administrators and members of CASA/Teamsters Local 502, invoking the Board’s own Goals and Guardrails, told the Board that they must fund necessary positions in order for any school to function: Assistant Principal, Climate Manager, Math and Reading Leads, and Special Education lead.  The organization and show of solidarity of CASA members at this meeting and on March 18 has been inspiring.  Go CASA.  

Five APPS members spoke in defense of public education.  (You can view their testimony at APPSPhilly.net.)  District high school teacher Kristin Luebbert testified on the Board’s pouring millions more into paying outside legal firms (Action Item 19), despite the fact that the Board has a fully staffed office of General Counsel.  Parent advocate Stephanie King pointed out that 65% of families are choosing remote instruction while those parents and students pleading for building reopening are coming from the wealthiest and whitest schools, again raising questions of the Board’s commitment to equity. King has been a fierce advocate against leveling, and her testimony tonight and in the past undoubtedly affected some Board members’ votes at this meeting.   

APPS member Cheri Micheau testified on Action Item 37 which allotted almost $9 million for a program that benefits only 490 students in one high school.  In light of both equity and pandemic concerns and G&G aspirations, this is a questionable expense at a time when every dollar should be spent carefully.   

APPS member Karel Kilimnik spoke on Action Item 35 and on the speaker suppression the Board has inflicted on the public with the speaker policy changes. APPS member Lisa Haver was denied her request to publicly object to the Board’s violation of the PA Sunshine Act (see above). This is just the latest in a shameful pattern of violations by the Board.  

Diane Payne testified on Action Item 25, a Change Order summary totaling $572,147 for this month but $3,026,326 for the first three months of 2021.  Payne has raised this issue at previous meetings. This did generate Board discussion before the vote and a call for more transparency in the Action Items relating to change order summaries in the future; however, the Item was approved. Time will tell if any meaningful change comes of this push. 

APPS member Deborah Grill testified on Action Item 5 which accepts a grant from the Fund for the School District to increase classroom libraries.  Grill pointed out the need for Certified School Librarians (CTL) which have all but disappeared from District public schools even as research supports positive academic outcomes for schools with well stocked libraries managed by CTLs.

Board Passses Most Items Unanimously

The Board voted to approve a total of $120, 845, 879 in District spending at this meeting.  Of that $9, 619, 930 will come from grants or donations, not from the District budget. 

Question:  Why did Board Member Salley abstain, without explanation, on numerous Items? Why did she not vote No if she did not want to pass them? 

Item 6: For review only; will be voted on at a subsequent meeting. 

Item 2: Passed unanimously.   Fix Lopez began deliberation on this Item. ABA is a controversial behavior intervention for use with students with autism.  APPS member Zoe Rooney, parent of an autistic child and District student,  has testified several times about the harm inflicted by this approach. The District persists, ignoring the issues raised by Rooney and other parents, who question its use and have asked how they can opt out of this intervention. Fix Lopez asked who the District’s autism specialist is and told Hite she could not discern from the Board’s website who parents could speak to on this. She requested the administration inform the Board on this process and answer the questions surrounding its use.

Item 23:   Passed 5-4, with Fix Lopez, McIver, Thompson and Salley dissenting. Thompson had expressed her problem with spending $4,454,000 for school modernization furniture.  This has been an ongoing project to update early literacy classrooms that began pre-pandemic and includes expenses for both facility upgrades and school furniture. When Items like these have appeared on previous agendas, they generated discussion but still passed. The main question was why the District would spend that much on furniture when many buildings had not yet been cleared of toxins. Board members also raised the issue of the District’s financial picture resulting post-pandemic. (None of these issues were raised before the vote on Item 19, which adds $1.5 million to the already existing $4.5 million legal slush fund.) 

Item 36:  Passed unanimously after amendment. Egea-Hinton introduced an amendment to change the school calendars to specify, with regard to leveling, that teachers will only be added to classes in need and not removed from any class. 

Item 38: Passed unanimously.

Item 8: Passed unanimously.

Block Voting: Items 1, 3, 4, 5, 7, 12 through 22, 24 through 35 all passed.

Board Member Lisa Salley abstained on seven Action Items: 12, 13, 15, 16, 28, 34, 37.  The first four Items were for consulting contracts.  Salley did say in a discussion before the vote that she encouraged the administration to develop in-house expertise and  not rely on consultants.  APPS has long advocated for a reduction in consulting contracts and a strengthening of in-house talent.  Salley did not explain why she abstained on the other Items.  

Item 37:  Passed unanimously.   This Items allots $8,791,566 for Parkway Center City Middle College (student population 490). Board member Danzy stated that this program should be assessed to see if the outcomes are worthy of the expense (but still voted Yes).

Item 19:  Passed 8-1. Attorney expenses  Regional Streater expressed concern about diversity in the legal firms being paid an additional $1.5 million and abstained.

The meeting adjourned at 10:01 PM, five hours after it began.