Ears on the Board of Education: May 29, 2019

by Diane Payne

APPS will keep calling out the Board on its lack of transparency until the members acknowledge that true community engagement cannot be accomplished by withholding public documents. Placing four binders on a table in the rear of the auditorium with a warning in red–”DO NOT REMOVE BINDERS FROM TABLE”–means that those who come to the meeting and want to follow the proceedings would have to stand in the back of the room for the entire meeting. The usual announcement that materials are available online is insulting and insensitive. As one parent activist reminded the Board last week, many families do not have online access.  And for those who do–are we supposed to memorize the entire agenda and all 85 Action Items? The Board is voting on Items that affect the future of the community and allot millions in taxpayer spending. This is not transparency and it is not public inclusion. Is the Board’s answer to just bring your computer (if you don’t have one–too bad) and balance it on your knees if you want the full descriptions about how they spend tens of millions of taxpayer dollars?

All meeting materials and videos from this and every meeting can be found on the SDP website, Board of Education page.

Present

All nine Board members were present as were the two student representatives.  Hill-Freedman World Academy provided the student musical presentation. As always, the talent and dedication of the students and their music teachers was inspiring and impressive.

The Minutes of the April 25, 2019 Action Meeting were approved.

A total of 54 speakers, 80 Action Items, and 6 Intermediate Unit Action Items presaged a long night.  Ten of these speakers were students. The initiative and commitment these young people exhibit in coming before the Board to share their concerns and demands is heartening. Seven members of APPS attended and six members testified in defense of public education.

President Wilkerson’s Remarks

President Wilkerson directed the public’s attention to Pennsylvania House Bills 356 and 357, now pending in Harrisburg, that will make it even more difficult for school districts to oversee charter schools, as well as H.B. 355 and 358 which fall short of the desperately needed charter school oversight for school districts. She asked those in attendance to call their legislators and tell them to vote against these bills.  Wilkerson reminded the public that the city fought to bring back local control, and we should not allow Harrisburg to dilute that. She referred to the Philadelphia Inquirer commentary written by her and Dr. Hite that appeared Thursday, and she encouraged the public to advocate to keep local control of our schools.

Superintendent’s Remarks

Dr. Hite’s remarks centered on supporting the budget, recognizing seniors, promoting the public’s engagement on the troubling Harrisburg House Bills, and the upcoming Comprehensive School Planning Review (CSPR).  

The District’s webpage contains this explanation of CSPR: “To achieve this vision, we must plan proactively not only for new school buildings but for improvements to existing buildings. Beginning in fall 2019, the District will partner with industry experts to lead a multi-year Comprehensive School Planning Review designed to take a strategic, system-wide look at how populations and communities across our city are projected to change in the coming years.”

Who are the “industry experts”? Once again  an outside firm will be paid millions to conduct this review.  The distrust that stakeholders feel toward any District promise to engage them and really listen to them stems from decades of top-down decisions that have caused chaos, disruption, outsourcing, privatization, and school closures–much of that stemming from District holding a few community meetings, then doing the opposite of what the community wanted.  The fact that the descriptions of this project don’t include any public meetings intensifies that distrust.

A large contingent of organized parents and community members from the overcrowded South Philly schools including Meredith and Nebinger elementary schools stayed until the bitter end of this very long meeting to demand that the District alleviate the crippling overcrowding in their schools.  These problems did not just crop up this year; they have been in the making for decades while the District turned a blind eye. Now the District is in crisis mode–just as it is in the Northeast. Will the public once again have to live with District decisions that do not reflect their voice? Just look to the loss of Smith and Bok schools in this neighborhood for the root of much of the public distrust expressed here.

APPS member Barbara Dowdall, in her testimony, asked whether trust in the District could be restored. Her heartfelt request cut to the chase: “Vow to never again cut out the public school heart of a community as has been done in Germantown.”

Committee Reports

The Student Representative report was given by Alfredo Practico.  His excitement on both his and Julia Frank’s upcoming graduation next week was palpable. The District has received eighty-one applications for these two student rep positions; the two new representatives should be chosen before the June Action Meeting.

(You can see the video and the meeting materials for each committee meeting by visiting the Board webpage as noted above.  APPS reports for each of these meetings can be found here on our website.

Co-chair Leticia Egea-Hinton delivered the Finance and Facilities Report; that committee discussed the sale of two District buildings including Belmont Charter. Co-chair Angela McIver  gave the Student Achievement and Support Committee report. Co-chair Maria McColgan delivered the Policy Committee report. Co-chair Julia Danzy gave the District Partnership and Community Engagement Committee report.  Danzy informed the public that the Committee will hold meetings on June 6, 2019 at 10:00 a.m. and again at 5:00 p.m. in order to engage the public in suggestions and comments for issues to be addressed by the Board next year.

Budget Presentation

Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson delivered the sole District presentation for this meeting.  Updated and incoming information will result in some changes in the District’s 5-year plan. Although next year will still result in a small fund balance, the picture is even less rosy than originally hoped.

Community Speakers

There were a number of student and adult speakers promoting the grassroots non-partisan efforts to register seniors to vote.  Those speakers asked that the administration support a district-wide effort to embed in the curriculum both educating and engaging our students in this civic responsibility.

A number of students spoke on behalf of supporting the arts in schools and the importance the arts play in their education.

The District continues to fund non-accredited training organizations that are created by the same corporate funders behind charters.  APPS has repeatedly testified, citing our own research, on the Relay (fake) graduate school of education, Jounce Partners, TNTP, and Philly Plus.   Even more alarming than the money spent on these training programs for teachers, principals, and administrators is the type of training received.  One teacher from the residency program, Danika Nieves, spoke about her negative experience in the Relay residency program, and she requested that the Board vote against any further Relay connections.  Her comments mirrored APPS research into these programs. Although there were four speakers promoting Relay, three were from the program. Please see the APPS reports on our website for more information.

The parent of an autistic child,  Zoe Rooney, spoke against I U Action Item 4, Contract with Progressus Therapy, LLC and I U Action Item 5, Contract with STAR Autism Support, Inc.  She noted that the techniques and protocols used in these programs are not defined and discussed with parents. She objected to her child being subjected to interventions that she is not familiar with and may not support.  Her ask was that parents be included in understanding how these programs work and having a mechanism in place to opt out. Frequently, these are children who cannot come home and communicate if something is wrong or uncomfortable.  The District must do better at engaging parents. She requested they vote No on these two items. Unfortunately, no Board member addressed her concerns, and the Items passed without discussion.

School nurse Eileen Duffey returned to sound alarm bells about the District’s violation of its own policy and state law on immunizations.  Duffey had spoken at two previous Action meetings and one Committee meeting, and the situation has yet to be resolved. Due to actions and communications from the Office of Student Supports, students who have no proof of immunization are not being excluded from school, as has been the practice for many years. When Dr. Hite asked OSS Director Karen Lynch to come up and explain, McGinley asked Dr. Hite to explain because he is in charge. Lynch came up anyway, and began to give her explanation of the situation. McGinley stopped her, saying that what she was saying was not true and that he had no choice but to call her out on it. Will the Board take charge of this situation and make sure all students are protected before next September?

Charter Votes

Four APPS members spoke against Action Items on charter renewals and applications.  In addition to the Belmont Charter School Renewal application controversy, three other renewals of poorly performing Charter Schools were on the agenda.  Ad Prima, Esperanza, and Mariana Bracetti were all renewed with a unanimous Yes vote– despite Ad Prima’s academic achievement score in the Watch category, Esperanza’s achievement scores  in the Intervene category for both their middle school and high school, and Bracetti’s achievement score in the Watch category for the elementary school and in the Intervene category for the high school.  To add insult to injury, Bracetti was granted an enrollment increase of 245 students. This was discussed at exactly zero Board meetings, so no Board member had to explain why a charter school with low academic ratings, and which expanded just last year, will be taking more students from the public schools around them.

Based on current District budget information, the current cost to operate Bracetti at its current enrollment is  $13, 688, 360 each year. A five-year renewal at that figure would cost $68, 441, 800; with the enrollment expansion it will be much more.  Esperanza’s 5-year renewal will cost, at minimum, $15, 293, 970. Ad Prima will cost at  $27, 144, 145 over 5 years. Belmont’s renewal, including the retroactive portion, comes at a cost of $40, 769, 820. The minimum cost of these four charters, over the next five years, comes to $151, 649, 735.  And remember, there are nine more to go.

Only McGinley and Fix Lopez voted No on the Belmont charter renewal. The sale of 4030 Brown Street is contingent on the school’s renewal.  McGinley was adamant that no building housing a catchment area school should be sold. He told the Board that this was not just a building, “this is a neighborhood”. Wilkerson said she had some problems with the sale, and repeating the argument we outlined in our letter to the Board days before the meeting, said that other Renaissance charter operators could also try to buy the District buildings they have inhabited.  Not surprisingly, Wilkerson voted for the renewal anyway.

There was no explanation for why only three of the twelve schools in this year’s renewal cohort appeared on the agenda. At the April 11 Student Achievement Committee meeting, Interim Charter Schools Director Christina Grant said that the CSO was recommending 5-year renewals for ten of the twelve. So what happened to the other nine? There is no other explanation other than the District is in private negotiations with their operators to work out the terms of their new charters. As I pointed out in my testimony, there are almost twenty charter schools who in the last three years who have refused to sign onto their renewals. They are able to operate without any consequences for failing to correct their deficiencies. Why was there no presentation from the CSO to explain why low-performing charters are being renewed and expanded or when the rest of this year’s cohort will be on the agenda. Unfortunately, we are watching the Board follow the same playbook with charters: private negotiations, withholding information from the public, and generally treating charter operators as clients, not schools to be evaluated and made to live up to basic standards.

Another serious problem is the Board’s continuation of voting on all charter issues–applications, renewals and amendments–without posting the text of the Item until the following day.  When the Board took the Belmont vote, Lisa Haver stood up and asked the Board where the text of the Item was. Where was the renewal agreement Christina Grant alluded to?  General Counsel Lynn Rauch responded that the full Item would be posted Friday. Haver told her and the Board that it was a violation of the PA Sunshine Act to vote without distributing or reading the complete Item. Rauch then came back with “this is a quasi-judicial Item”. The Board is not a quasi-judicial body. They only invoke this excuse when it comes to charter issues. There is no law that says the Board cannot tell the public what it is voting on when it votes on charter issues.

Tacony Charter School @ St. Vincent’s revised application was unanimously denied, as it should have been.  It was a deficient application, a totally inappropriate location, their current schools are not performing adequately, and they have unsigned charter agreements.

One disconcerting feature of the meeting was President Wilkerson’s repeated admonishments to other members of the Board and to Dr. Hite that an issue they were discussing would be better dealt with “another time” or “in another venue”. What better time and place is there to discuss public issues than at a public meeting? We really don’t need to go back to the SRC days when deliberation before voting was a rare occurrence.

Block Votes

Action Items 1 – 9:  Passed unanimously.

Action Items 2 through 4: Passed unanimously

Action Items 5 through 7:  Passed unanimously

Action Items 8 through 13: Passed unanimously

Action Items 14 through 19: All passed unanimously except for Item 18–5 Yes,  4 abstentions due to affiliations with Temple or Penn (Fix Lopez, Huang, McGinley, Wilkerson)

Action Items 20 through 27:  Passed unanimously

Action Items 28 through 33:  Passed unanimously

Action Items 34 through 38:  Passed unanimously

Action Items 39 through 47:  Passed unanimously

Action Items 48 through 52:  Passed unanimously

Action Items 53 through 60:  Passed unanimously except Item 59 with 6 Yes, 1 No (Fix Lopez), 2 Abstentions (McGinley and Wilkerson) and Item #60 with 8 Yes, 0 No, and 1 Abstention.

Action Items 61 through 67:  Passed unanimously

Action Item 70: Withdrawn prior to meeting

Action Items 68 through 72:  Passed unanimously except Item 72 with 9 Yes and 1 No (McGinley)

Action Item 73: No action at the meeting; to be voted on at next meeting.

Action Item 74: Passed unanimously

Action Item 75, Ad Prima renewal:  Passed unanimously

Action Item 76, Belmont renewal: 7 Yes, 2 No (Fix Lopez and McGinley)

Action Item 77, Esperanza renewal: Passed unanimously

Action Item 78, Mariana Bracetti renewal and enrollment expansion:  Passed unanimously

Action Item 79, Tacony reapplication: Unanimously denial

Action Item 80: Passed unanimously

The regular Action Meeting adjourned, and the I.U. meeting commenced. All six Items passed unanimously.

Meeting adjourned at 9 PM.