Ears on the Board of Education: March 26, 2020

by Diane Payne

The Board of Education conducted this Action Meeting following  a number of adaptations to pandemic restrictions. In times of crisis, we may lose sight of the importance of following long-established government rules and policies, but these are the very times that make that even more important. The PA Sunshine Act ensures that the public has the ability to observe and  participate in decisions made by their government. While adjusting to the needs of Governor Wolf’s public safety direction to not gather in groups, it is incumbent on the Board to facilitate Action Meetings with as much public participation as technology affords. The Board had initially allowed for no public participation, saying that people could send in testimony 24 hours before the meeting, summaries of which would be read by Board members.  No public voices would be heard during the meeting. APPS continued to point out–in public statements and in letters to the Board–that available technology allowed for them to take and respond to questions and comments in a number of ways. For example, if most of the Board members were participating by phone, then one phone line could be used to hear from the community. Comments and questions taken via twitter and email could be answered during the meeting–and when the meeting came, that is exactly what the Board did.  It was heartening to see APPS’ suggestions put into practice. Board members read public testimony in full, and they read and responded to messages sent via twitter and email. Superintendent Hite did try to answer some of those questions with promises to provide additional answers in the follow-up venues of FAQs on the District website and his weekly Facebook live meetings on Wednesdays at 3:00 p.m. The Board has promised to improve on its efforts for April’s meeting by tapping into the technology options that offer live, interactive possibilities. Unfortunately, the Board’s introduction of two crucial items the day of the meeting has served to cast doubt on the Board’s promises of transparency.

Present

Present in person (with adequate social distancing) were President Joyce Wilkerson and Board members Julia Danzy and Chris McGinley; Vice President Wayne Walker, Leticia Egea-Hinton, Mallory Fix Lopez, Lee Huang, Maria McColgan, Angela McIver, and student representatives Doha Ibrahim and Imere Williams  attended via phone. Superintendent Hite attended in person.  Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson and District Counsel Lynn Rauch attended via phone. No members of the public or the press were in the room. Lee Huang provided information on how the meeting would be conducted and gave directions on how to submit questions through twitter and email. Minutes of the February Action Meeting were approved.

APPS members viewed this meeting via the available electronic platforms. Testimonies of APPS and other defenders of public education can be viewed on the APPS website.  

The video of this meeting as well as the agenda and meeting materials can be found on the Board of Education page of the District’s website.  

Crucial Items Added to Agenda at Last Minute

President Wilkerson introduced two Walk-on Action Items that had been added to the agenda just hours before the meeting–after the deadline for public testimony to be sent in. The first, Action Item 54, proposed an $11 million contract with CDI technologies to purchase 50,000 Chromebooks for online instruction during the health crisis. Action Item 55  allows the Superintendent or his designee to bypass Board policies, including entering into no-bid contracts, in the name of “greater flexibility”. Item 55 sunsets just prior to the next Board meeting but can be renewed month to month. Both of these Items were Walk-on Items; the Sunshine Act settlement between the District and APPS stipulates that the public must be given the opportunity to sign up to testify on them at the meeting. President Wilkerson should have directed members of the public who wanted to testify on these Items to contact them through the open avenues.

There are several concerns about both of these Action Items.  Item 54 on Chromebook purchasing appeared on the Board Agenda mid-week, disappeared the day before the meeting, then reappeared about one hour before the meeting.  Members of the public who follow Board developments were unable to know for certain whether this Item would appear or what the final expenditure would be. Suggestion for Board staff for future Item changes: post a brief statement that the Item or the agenda is being amended and the time it will reappear.

The Action Item 54 description failed to answer important questions about this purchase approval. The Item states that the selection of CDI Computer Dealers Inc. was made with the assistance of Comcast Corporation.  How can the public assess the cost per Chromebook to understand that this is in fact a worthy and reasonable purchase? What if any is the benefit to Comcast?

Since these are  refurbished computers,  the Chromebooks should be “wiped” before our students use them;  that is, all personally identifiable information (PII) should be removed from the computer.  This includes search histories and anything captured from the camera. If done properly, our students will be getting  Chromebooks with “untouched-to-date” software. Will students and their families be assured that all refurbished Chromebooks will be wiped electronically clean and the privacy concerns of our students fully explained and resolved? 

The following morning, an interview with Comcast CEO Brian Roberts and his wife, Aileen, appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer in which the Roberts explained their largess in donating $5 million toward the purchase of Chromebooks.  Comcast will provide temporary free access to students’ homes currently without it, but that excludes any household whose cable bill is in arrears.

While many laud the wealthy for their donations, the larger issues cannot be ignored. For many years, Comcast has offered its Internet Essentials program, designed to provide low-cost internet access to the low-income students. Comcast advertisements have held up  the program as evidence of its role as a responsible corporate citizen, giving back to those less fortunate. But Internet Essentials customers have frequently expressed frustration over barriers to enrolling and the quality of service. Comcast’s failure to make this service widely accessible to economically struggling families was one topic at City Council’s 2015 hearings on the 15-year  renewal of Comast’s license. The Roberts donation actually goes to the District via the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia. The Fund is a private organization whose board meetings  are not open to the public (reminiscent of the Great Schools Compact Committee of the SRC era), yet the Fund’s board members determine which schools receive donations and for which programs. This effectively removes public oversight of school funding and thwarts the democratic process.

Action Item 55, in a kind of “war powers” move, gives Superintendent Hite extensive power in decisions around expenditures, entering into contracts, and suspension of Board policies. The Item stipulates that this applies only to actions related to the Covid-19 crisis.  Although these are extraordinary times, the Board failed to fully explain its reasons or justify ceding its own powers to the Administration. If there were any purchases that had to be made before the next meeting, the Board could easily call an emergency meeting and take the vote in public. The Board should not renew this Item next month.  This is not the time to keep information about crucial decisions from the public.

Superintendent’s Remarks

Dr. Hite provided updates on  how the District is responding to the continually changing Covid-19 needs.  (These updates can be found on the SDP website’s homepage).

Lump Sum Budget Statement

Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Uri Monson provided a PowerPoint presentation (which can be accessed in the Board’s meeting materials) on the upcoming 2020-21 Lump Sum Budget. The hurried presentation showed the status of budget projections and  the risks that were relevant three weeks ago, prior to the crisis. The mandatory timeline means the District must pass its final budget for the next fiscal year by May 30. Monson acknowledged that although the projections for this budget were structurally sound, they reflected information from three weeks ago.  It was very apparent that the unknown dominates this and future discussions.

Committee Reports

Julia Danzy presented the report from the Parent and Community Engagement Committee.  APPS continues to question why this Committee, without explanation, has held no public meetings since May 2019. The Committee relies on members they have chosen for their  Advisory Council to take turns going into their community and soliciting questions and concerns to share with the Board, although those questions are not answered when presented at the Action Meetings.  This hardly represents robust community engagement. The March meetings of the Student Achievement Committee and the Finance Committee were cancelled due to the crisis, so no reports were given.

Board Promises More Open April Meeting

Mallory Fix Lopez proved to be a rock star at this meeting just when we all needed it most.  APPS’ member Ilene Poses has become well known for expressing her views through song as testimony.  Undaunted by the crisis, Ilene submitted her testimony with directions on how to sing it to the tune of the song she selected. To everyone’s surprise, Fix Lopez rose to the occasion and did indeed sing Ilene’s testimony into the record.  This touching and heartwarming gesture was just what we all needed in these trying times. Thanks to Ilene and to Ms Fix Lopez!

As noted above, the Board implemented many of APPS’ suggestions for public participation.   Before the meeting, the Board stated that members would read summaries of public testimony, but Mallory Fix Lopez and Maria McColgan took turns reading testimonies in their entirety. Initially, there was no format for interactive participation; that too changed.  As noted above, participants could submit questions and comments through email and twitter, and those questions were summarized and read aloud for Board members or Dr. Hite to respond.

The Board has promised to step up its game by the next Action Meeting, which most expect to be a virtual one.  Available technology allows for real-time public engagement. This is crucial to making this crisis meeting format more Sunshine Act-compliant. Only essential business should be conducted during this crisis.  We are all very aware that the economic unknowns facing us at the end of the crisis could result in choices we can’t imagine at this juncture. Therefore, no money should be spent on non-essential items until the District has a better understanding of economic impacts. Acceding to public pressure, one non-essential item was removed from the list prior to this meeting.  Despite APPS’ requests, the Board made no effort to explain why the remaining 54 Items were essential. For the duration of this crisis, the Board should include a sentence on each Action Item verifying its essential status. One Item in particular stood out as nonessential; Action Item 32 Contract with AARP for school-based volunteers at $638,565. Budget items for volunteers should not be essential until the full economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is understood.

Item 16, Amendment of Contract with Various Vendors – ERP Implementation ($5,100,000) and Item 17 Amendment of Contract with Various Temporary Staffing Vendors – ERP Implementation ($2,300,000), were also questionable.  The details listed in the Action Items refer vaguely to “a change in the implementation timeline” with no details justifying this timeline change. Although it would be easy to justify due to the crisis, this Item was on the list before the crisis.  The public deserves to fully understand both the why and the how of a timeline change that results in an additional $7,400,000 expenditure. Action Item 24 approved a change order to the Ben Franklin/SLA project at an additional cost of $1,798,148, again with no justification for immediate passage.

Real-Time Questions

Chris McGinley read the questions that had been submitted via the email and twitter platforms.  Some of the questions Hite had already addressed in his remarks; he said he would try to answer the others through the FAQ’s on the website or during his weekly Facebook Live meeting.  Questions arise every day. For example, how can children who left necessary medicine in schools retrieve it? There have been reports that personnel or volunteers at some meal pickup locations are asking questions about where students live and who is in their house before handing out meals. Hite told Board members that this is not District policy.

Voting on Action Items

Action Items 1, 26, and 31 were withdrawn by staff.

Block voting on Action Items 2, 4, 5, 9-25, 27-30, 32-53.  Lopez and Huang abstained on 4 and 5, Huang abstained on 5.  The remaining items passed unanimously. Item 4 passed 7 to 2; Item 5 passed 8 to 1 with the abstensions.

Action Item 3: passed unanimously

Action Items 6, 7: passed unanimously

Action Item 54: passed unanimously

Action Item 55: passed unanimously

Intermediate Unit Vote on IU Items 1-7: passed unanimously

The meeting adjourned just before 8 PM.