Ears on the Board of Education: May 28, 2020

By Diane Payne

The Board held its sixth remote Action meeting on May 28 as the Covid-19 crisis continues to necessitate quarantine. The Board has taken a Shock Doctrine approach to leadership by arbitrarily, without explanation, changing the procedures for public speaking. These changes, obviously,  have no bearing on public safety.  In violation of its own policy, one approved by unanimous vote only 6 months ago, the Board has whittled down the public’s three minutes of speaking time to two. In another violation, the Board allowed only three speakers on a topic. The policy allows for four.  At the November 2019 Policy Committee meeting,  APPS co-founder Lisa Haver objected to the Board’s proposal to eliminate the public speakers’ provision of the meeting policy.  Her concern was that it would leave this important public process subject to capricious changes at the whim of the Board. Unfortunately,  Haver’s fears were prescient.  Again, there is no health and safety reason for reducing the number of public speakers.  APPS calls on the Board to cease violating its own policy and reinstate the public’s full three minutes to speak and the number of speakers on topics back to four.  

Board Officers Elected

The Board is operating with only eight members as Mayor Kenney has not replaced Chris McGinley.  For some reason, Mayor Kenney has said that his Nominating Panel must reconvene even though this panel submitted names of 27 candidates just months ago.  It is unclear why the panel must start all over.  The Board elected officers at this first meeting of the new term. Joyce Wilkerson was re-elected President, Leticia Egea-Hinton elected Vice-President.  The Mayor’s replacement for Wayne Walker, Akeem Akbar, participated in his first full Action Meeting.  The remaining Board members: Julia Danzy, Mallory Fix Lopez, Lee Huang, Maria McColgan, and Angela McIver were also all present for this remote platform meeting. Student representatives Imere Williamson and Doha Abrahim also attended. 

Minutes of the April meeting were approved.  

Seven APPS members spoke in defense of public education at this meeting; one member submitted written testimony.  This testimony can be viewed on the APPS website  

(All agendas and District PowerPoints can be viewed at the District website .  Videos of meetings can be viewed by visiting the BOE homepage and clicking on Watch Previous Board )    

APPS Protests Board’s Continued Violation of Sunshine Act

President Wilkerson opened her remarks by informing the public of a special meeting of the Board, required by the Home Rule Charter, to hear general concerns from the public. [The meeting was cancelled the day before; no other date has been posted.]  

Wilkerson reiterated the importance of maintaining current funding from all government funding sources: city, state, and federal. She reminded all that the District has initiated a Fund Our Schools campaign, information about which can be found on the District homepage.   At every meeting in which the Board votes on charter issues, APPS members stand and object to the Board’s repeated violations of the PA Sunshine Act.  All of these votes are in effect taken in secret, as the public does not see the full text of the Items. President Wilkerson read the APPS statement per our request, sent in a letter to the Board the day before the meeting.

Superintendent’s Remarks

Dr. Hite honored two Students of the Month for February and two for March.  Pictures of the students holding the $500 Office Depot check were shown via PowerPoint.    

Hite  proceeded with the Continuity of Education presentation. He notified the Board that two added Action Items (A.I. 45 and 46) were on the agenda for a Board approval: suspension of graduation requirements and an $11 million ChromeBook purchase.  He noted an increase in student remote participation (57% to 70%) as District staff improves at capturing participation. Hite announced that the Class of 2020 will have a virtual graduation on June 9th at 11:00 a.m. followed by a District wide virtual after-party at 7:00 p.m.

The District will offer various summer programming options, all held in virtual platforms.  Parents can access information on available programs here.  Hite updated the Board on current construction, asbestos abatement, and lead remediation projects.  Hite concluded his presentation by listing ten working groups focused on school reopening and operation for the Fall: Health & Safety, Communications, School Safety, Employee Policies, Facilities, Academics, Transportation & Food Services, Finance, School Operations & Supports, Policies, Guidelines, Orders.  He identified three possible scenarios at the heart of the planning: schools completely reopened, partially reopened, or some type of hybrid.  At the conclusion of Hite’s remarks, Wilkerson opened the floor to Board member questions. Board member Egea-Hinton asked about the apparent absence of teacher or school staff voice in the plan,  Hite responded that teachers have been helping from the beginning (later, an APPS’ member and District teacher questioned where and how that was happening?) and that the District was planning a teacher/family survey.  He said that the District intends to use the recently completed 6,000 surveys submitted by Philadelphia Federation of Teachers members.  As several advocates noted in their testimony, surveys tend to solicit narrow, easy-to-package responses rather than glean ideas and relevant experiences.  Longtime parent advocate Ceclia Thompson suggested the District hold virtual town halls to truly hear the questions and concerns of the community on this issue. 

Another Doomsday Budget?

Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Uri Munson presented on this year’s budget and next. Action Item 2 adopted the amended budget for this year as well as the budget for FY 20/21. Monson reported the good news that the state subsidy will remain at the FY 2020 level. However,  Mayor Kenney has already withdrawn his proposal for a property tax increase.  The District will end this year with a small fund balance and next year with an even smaller fund balance.  For each of the three remaining years of the five-year budget projection, the fund balance will decrease, putting the District deeper into the red.  Once again, payments to charter vendors will increase at a rate higher than any other budget item.  When questioned how the District fares compared to other districts, Munson stated that the District has a five-year plan while most other districts have a one- to two-year plan. Other districts may be facing a bleaker financial picture than Philadelphia. 

Egea-Hinton asked Munson again to closely scrutinize all Action Items to be sure they are essential. APPS member Diane Payne raised this issue earlier this month both in her testimony and in a letter to the Board. Isn’t it the Board’s responsibility to oversee and direct that the administration engages in only essential business?  Whose definition of essential is being used?  It doesn’t seem like leadership to ask District administrators without a clear definition and oversight by the actual Board.  

Fix Lopez read an extensive statement, first praising Hite and the administration’s efforts through these difficult months. She said that Board members must challenge the status quo, that they were beginning their second term and no longer “newbies”. She made a distinction between “wants” and “needs” and noted that in this time of budget tightening the District must recognize the difference.  Fix Lopez said that this year, school libraries must be on the “want” list–implying that the Board had actually been moving toward restoring school libraries with Certified Teacher Librarians. The truth is that the only time we have heard that plea has been in the testimonies, year after year, of countless APPS members. APPS members have attended every Board Action Meeting and Committee meeting for the past two years.  Not once has the restoration of Certified School Librarians been on any agenda.  The public is painfully aware that the SRC, and now the Board, have relegated school libraries to a permanent wish-list.  

Board member Huang reminded all that there is no money in this budget for any upcoming labor contracts.  Message to PFT, CASA , 32BJ and other District unions: Please accept our thanks for your service above and beyond during this time of crisis–just don’t expect us to express that thanks with a fair contract.   

Community Engagement Committee No Longer Meets with Community

Angela McIver reported for the Student Achievement Committee.  Leticia Egea-Hinton gave the Finance and Facilities report. Maria McColgan gave the Policy Committee report. Doha Ibrahim read the Student Rep report.  

[APPS attends and reports on all committee meetings.  Those reports can be found on our website.  The committee videos and meeting materials can be viewed on the District website.]

Julia Danzy had Cecelia Thompson from the Parent and Community Engagement Committee give this Committee’s report.  As a longtime parent activist, Thompson presented a good report enumerating issues of importance to the community.  However, as APPS has reported for over a year, this committee fails to truly engage the community.  According to the Policy Committee’s own guidelines, they are required to hold quarterly public meetings.  They have not met since April, 2019.  Instead, the committee relies solely on one community member from the Advisory Committee to report at each Action Meeting.  This Advisory Committee member meets with community members, then provides an anecdotal summary of selected remarks.  Once the report is given–crickets.  There is no plan of action, no follow-up, and certainly no public meetings.  Many view public engagement as a serious Board flaw.  The Parent and Community Engagement Committee must resume its meetings with parents and community members. 

Status Quo Remains Unchallenged in Block Voting

President Wilkerson began by consolidating the Action Items that would be voted on in a block, identifying Action Items with no vote at this meeting, and pulling out Action Items for individual votes. This method of voting leads to less deliberation of individual Items.

Item 40:   No Action at this meeting.

Items 11and 12:  Withdrawn.

Items 1, 5-9, 13-37, 41-46:  passed in a block vote.  Fix Lopez abstained on number 41; Huang abstained on 5, 29, 31, and 41. (Board members are required to explain why they are abstaining; most failed to do so at this meeting.)  All others voted Yes.

Items  2,3,4: Passed unanimously.

Item 10:  Passed unanimously.

Item 38, Charter School renewal for Mastery Douglas: Passed unanimously. There was no deliberation and no questions, nor was there any explanation of why the Board eliminated the usual presentation from the Charter Schools Office.    

Item 39, Charter School renewal for Russell Byers:  Passed 7-1.  Akbar abstained explaining a “personal connection.” No deliberation. Both renewal votes taken in secret. Full Items were posted the day after the meeting, constituting a falsification of the public record. 

Speakers Protest Less Time for Public Concerns

Teacher, parent advocate and APPS member Zoe Rooney questioned the lack of transparency about the high-stakes CSPR process.  Board Member Huang followed up with his own question to Hite, noting that Rooney was not the only one wondering about CSPR.  Hite’s response contained little relevant information about how to restart the process, any forecast data about facilities, or the use of surveys.  Hite used a particularly chilling phrase when he stated that some of the results of CSPR could be school consolidations and schools coming “off-line.”  This appears to be a euphemism for school closure. Unfortunately, no Board member asked for an explanation. 

Six of the sixteen registered speakers, including five APPS members,  objected to the Board’s reduction of speaker time and number of speakers per topic–both in violation of the Board’s own policy.  They pointed out there was no reason for this reduction and asked for a reinstatement of pre-pandemic public engagement time.  None of the Board members responded.   

Four APPS members spoke against the 5-year renewals of Mastery Douglas and Russell Byers charter schools at a cost of over $100 million to the taxpayers. Members asked why the CSO gave no presentation; none of the Board members responded. Both schools scored in the two lowest academic categories in the most recent Annual Charter review. Douglass received a “Does Not Meet” in academics on the charter renewal evaluation.  Mastery scores consistently fall in the single-digit Intervene category.  The Public School Notebook exposed a conspiracy of silence among Mastery administrators when they failed to notify parents or the District about brown toxic water coming out of student water fountains. Yet the Board felt no need to question any of this or the lack of a CSO report. This is a failure to safeguard both the tax dollars supporting these schools as well as the health and safety of the students in those schools.  The status quo remains unchallenged by the Board. 

Intermediate Unit Meeting and Adjournment

Two Items were passed unanimously on the I.U. agenda and both the Action Meeting and the I.U. meeting were adjourned.