Ears on the Board of Education: March 28, 2019

by Diane Payne

The Board of Education saw its first real pushback at this meeting.  Student protestors, upset at the vote on metal detector policy, took over the meeting.  The Board left the room and did not return, leaving the public participants wondering what was happening. The Board then took an unprecedented action which may have serious legal ramifications.  Democracy is not always neat and orderly. How the Board responds to the messiness of passionate voices will shed a light on how much “local control” really exists under a mayoral-appointed Board.  Details below.


All nine members of the Board of Education were present as well as student representatives Alfredo Pratico and Julia Frank.  (All meeting agendas and materials can be viewed on the SDP website;  videos of previous meetings can be viewed by scrolling down on the BOE homepage and clicking on Watch Previous Board Meetings.)

Ten APPS members were present, but only one had the opportunity to testify.  Seven others were unable to deliver their public remarks to the Board. The room was filled to capacity, and the energy of engagement was palpable.  A total of 48 speakers were registered to speak, but only 12 were able to deliver their remarks.

The meeting commenced with a beautiful student performance from the Central High Jazz Combo.  As usual, the talent and confidence of these student performers was inspiring and a stark reminder that the battle to preserve and improve PUBLIC education is a battle worth fighting.

Superintendent’s Remarks

Superintendent Hite’s remarks centered primarily on Policy 805/Emergency Preparedness that would mandate the use of metal detectors in all District high schools.  (The three high schools not currently using metal detectors would be forced to institute this process.) Hite acknowledged and thanked the many student and advocate voices who were lobbying for a postponement on this policy vote.  He stated his support of this policy for safety reasons but insisted that the information shared by speakers has been included in assuring that the students entering buildings are all made to feel welcome and that the process is for safety only.  He mentioned the District’s training for security staff, setting up monitoring protocols, and setting up a method of engagement where students can provide feedback in direct response to student demands. It should be noted that there was nothing specific spelled out in these promises.  The specific training was not defined, the monitoring protocols were not shared, and the student feedback engagement process was not described.

Students and advocates have lobbied hard for at least three months, coming to every Student Achievement and Support Committee and Action Meeting.  Their message has been two-fold: 1) The District is perpetuating the school-to-prison pipeline culture by putting more and more money into policing solutions while remaining unfunded or underfunded in other areas like class size, counselor and nurse ratios, restorative justice plans, and building conditions;  2) Engaging in community dialogue complete with risk/cost studies on where District money is spent is non-existent and should be an integral part of this plan. (More on this topic to follow.)

Committee Reports

Each of the four Committees gave a report from their March meetings.  The reports mirrored what APPS has reported on our website from our attendance at these meetings.  (Information is also available on the Board website, either by viewing the broadcast of each committee meeting or viewing the agendas and powerpoint presentations.  This information can be found on the SDP website by clicking on the Board of Education page.)

Student Representative Julia Frank noted in the Student Representative’s report that the District is actively recruiting replacements for the two student seats that will be open next year. The application can be found on the District website and is open until April 23rd.  Any interested 11th or 12th grade students should go to the SDP website to submit an application.

The Partnership and Community Engagement Committee held a community meeting in West Philadelphia on March 21st.  Co-chair Julia Danzy noted the great turnout for this meeting thanks to the efforts of education activist Mama Gail in garnering community support.  She noted that a recurrent topic is creating more welcoming school buildings. Danzy said that schools had work to do in welcoming families, sharing positive news about their school with parents, strengthening  school/parent communication efforts, and improving efforts to make the parent survey more accessible for all. Danzy noted that not all parents have technology access to complete these surveys and schools should help with making this easier.

APPS would like to note here that the Board’s own continued  adherence to having little or no meeting documents available at Committee and Action meetings seems to indicate that the Board itself fails to recognize Danzy’s point. At the last Policy Committee meeting,  NO copies of the policies in question were distributed, making it impossible for attendees to follow what was being deleted, replaced, or added. APPS has repeatedly asked the Board to provide adequate copies of the Action Items to be voted on at the meetings.  (Even the much-maligned SRC provided the public with the copies of the items to be voted on with explanations about each item.) Putting three binders in the back of the meeting room–with “Do Not Remove” warnings on the covers–does not cut it. Are people supposed to stand at the back of the room so they can follow the deliberations and votes?  Or try to read all of the Items on their smartphone screens? The assumptions the Board makes flies in the face of their stated commitments to community engagement and transparency.

APPS will continue to advocate for real community engagement and real transparency by urging the Board to make the Action Item list a numbered document with descriptions of each item to be voted on available to the public at every meeting.

District Presentation on Lump Sum Statement

Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson and Superintendent Hite conducted this presentation.  Hite began by citing District investments and improvements with a powerpoint presentation that highlighted district-wide successes in academics, building conditions, and fiscal stability, while briefly noting the work the District must do to improve.  Hite concluded by saying that in SY 19/20 the District will continue to build on its investments.

APPS monitors the spending priorities found in each month’s Action Items. The Board’s continuation of the SRC’s outsourcing, often with little staff input or peer research to support it,  is at the heart of trust issues between the District and staff, student, and community members. Hite cited continued investments in K-5 literacy coaches, but District staff have testified about the conflicts and inadequacies found in the current coaching model.  He noted increasing classroom libraries, ignoring repeated public testimony and solid research supporting school libraries staffed with certified school librarians. At last count, there were only 8 such libraries in a District of 214 schools. How can that be justified?

Monson then presented the figures for the Lump Sum statement.  (The details can be viewed on the SDP website as noted earlier.)  Worth noting is the $96 million increase in charter school funding for next year–the single largest budget increase.  Monson reported that the budget is closer than ever to being “structurally balanced”,  an elusive goal for many years. The District will finish the next three years with modest fund balances, but expect to be facing a deficit in FY 2022.

Next steps in the budget process include the April 11 meeting of the Finance and Facilities Committee, the April 25 Board Action Meeting, along with the City Council hearings on the District budget May 14 and May 15; public testimony will be heard on the second day.  Hite ended the presentation with a call to action. This call included three volunteer suggestions: volunteer in a school, adopt a school, or donate to The Fund for the School District. APPS continues to caution about the impact of donations to individual schools that are not made by the public Board but by the Fund’s private board.  The Fund for The School District is a private organization that holds closed board meetings.  They are not accountable to the public, but they make decisions about how to spend money in public schools. All decisions about our schools should be transparent and include public participation.

Board member Chris McGinley suggested that another form of involvement would be for District staff who reside in the suburbs but have vested interests in Philadelphia schools to communicate with their suburban legislators on behalf of city schools.  Responding to a question from President Wilkerson, Monson said that three documents will be available on the District website: a school-by-school budget, a detailed lump-sum budget, and a “Users 101” guide (which was suggested by APPS members two years ago).   Monson said he hopes to have these documents online soon.

Public Speakers on Action Items

Twelve speakers were on the list to speak on the meeting’s  Action Items. Eight of those speakers included six Philly Student Union (PSU) speakers lobbying against Policy 805/Emergency Preparedness requiring metal detector use in ALL Philadelphia high schools.  One parent speaker testified in favor of increased metal detector use. Councilwoman Helen Gym spoke in support of the PSU students’ demand for a hold on this policy. In addition to the speakers, there were many student supporters in the auditorium.

Voting Begins, Then Chaos

After the first set of speakers, the Board votes on all Action Items, followed by public speakers on general topics.  Action Item 1 proposed the adoption of several policies, including Policy 805 on metal detectors in all high schools. Board members Mallory Fix Lopez and Angela McIver both spoke against passing Policy 805 at this time.  Lopez noted that the Board has expressed commitment to “listening” to the voices of the community which she said was reason to table this vote until the Board further engaged the community in the process. She further noted that another Board policy– #817–deals directly with metal detectors; this policy will be up for review in the near future.  She expressed concern that what was being voted on at this meeting should actually be included in Policy 817. McIver noted similar concerns and stated that she felt the Board was putting the cart before the horse. She refuted the comparison some have cited–that there are metal detectors at ball parks and airports. She argued that those places have strangers passing through the gates.  Our schools are places of community where we know and care about each other. Most of the other Board members spoke in support of passing Policy 805, giving specific reasons for their decisions.

General Counsel Lynn Rauch instructed the Board to clearly state whether they were voting Yes on all or including a No vote on one of the policies; she then called for the vote. (This is questionable as there was only one vote for all policies; they were not listed as separate Action Items.)  Seven Board Members voted Yes on all policies; Lopez and McIver voted Yes on all except for their No vote on Policy 805.

When this Item passed, Julien Terrell, adult director of PSU, erupted from the back of the auditorium.  He walked to the front, placing himself in front of the Board table and directed his comments to the audience.  Student protestors flanked him with signs as he spoke and yelled to the audience. He said that the students were “not heard” and that he no longer recognized the “legitimacy” of the Board. President Wilkerson and Superintendent Hite attempted to regain control of the meeting but Terrell refused to sit down.  A motion was made to pass Items 2-4, but responses from some of the Board members could not be heard. Lee Huang was called several times for the roll-call vote, but did not respond. Wilkerson managed to motion for a vote on Action Items 2 through 4. The vote was seconded and after many attempts through the noise she succeeded in getting the vote called.  BOE member Huang failed to vote in the confusion after successive attempts by Wilkerson so the Action Items passed with 8 Yes and 1 non-vote.

At this point, Wilkerson asked for a motion to recess.  Although a motion was made and seconded, there was no roll-call vote taken to recess but the Board left the room.

Some speakers came to the front of the room and voiced their remarks to the audience at large, but at that point, mics were off, live-stream was off, and no Board was present. The screen in the front of the room was blank.  Several minutes passed with no indication of when or if the Board would return. All of the District staff remained in the auditorium. After a while, one member of the audience came up to APPS members to show us, on her phone, a video of the Board meeting somewhere else.

A group of about ten people including APPS members went down to the Board office. We were met by about five school police officers who said we would not be admitted. We then figured out that the Board must have been meeting in the Committee room. We asked to be admitted as they were conducting a public meeting.  They said they were directed not to admit anyone. We made it clear that we had nothing to do with disrupting the meeting.

Board Chief of Staff Claire Landau came out and began to tell us why we could not come to the meeting.  We asked that the Board members come out themselves to explain their actions.

Finally, Board President Wilkerson and members McGinley and Walker came out to speak to the gathered members of the public.  Wilkerson informed those present that they concluded their business. When Lisa Haver stated that the Sunshine Law requires votes in public,  Wilkerson stated they believed they were on “solid legal ground” because the meeting was live-streamed. However, no one announced the live-streaming, neither the auditorium screen or the screen in the first-floor atrium ran it, and the second part of the meeting was over by the time people figured out that it was taking place.

The following Monday, APPS sent a letter to the Board, signed by co-founders Lisa Haver and Karel Kilimnik, informing the Board that they had clearly violated the Sunshine Act by meeting and voting in a private meeting. We notified them that fines and court costs could be assessed against all Board members if they do not take steps to come into compliance.   The Board responded two days later, maintaining their position that it was a legal voting process because it was live-streamed and that they had no control over the disruption that occurred.

The Board released a statement to the media that the Board had completed its voting, including approving the lump-sum budget, and adjourned. They said that the thirty-six speakers who were prevented from speaking would be placed at the top of the list at the April 25 Action Meeting.  It is not clear whether they will have the normal 3 minutes to speak or if they will be given 6 minutes to account for both the March and April meetings.

The action that shut down the Board meeting seemed to be spontaneous and in reaction to feeling shut out.  There are both proponents of this action and opponents, but it was the culmination of a months-long process of community engagement that ended poorly.  The question for all participants, and mostly for the Board members in power, is what constructive lessons can be learned from this night?

Board Finishes Voting Behind Closed Doors

The Board resumed voting on the Action Items in the BOE committee room.  The public was not informed, no live streamed video was playing on the 440 public viewing screens, and the public was denied entrance to the committee room.  This portion of the voting can also be seen on the SDP website by clicking on the BOE page, scrolling to the bottom and clicking on “watch previous Board meetings”, and clicking on 20190328 BOE Action Meeting Part 2.

This meeting began with President Wilkerson’s explanation about why they were meeting in the committee room followed by taking the remaining votes.  Wilkerson began by calling for another vote on Action Items 2 through 4 (even though a vote was taken upstairs). For this vote, all 9 members voted yes.

Action Item 5 – Lump Sum Statement – Unanimous Yes vote

Action Items 6 through 11 – passed with Unanimous Yes votes on all but two abstentions from Fix Lopez and Huang on #11 due to conflicts of interest.

Action Items 12 through 22 – passed with Unanimous Yes votes

Action Items 23 through 33 – passed with Unanimous Yes votes

Action Items 34 through 39 – passed with Unanimous Yes votes except for #35 for which Fix Lopez voted NO.

Thirty-seven items were voted on in 7 block votes.  There was no discussion or questions on any of these votes.