Ears on the Board of Education: November 15, 2018

by Diane Payne

Eight of the nine Board members were present as were the two student representatives.  Member Chris McGinley was absent. Once again, the Board failed to provide adequate copies of written materials including the Action Items to be voted on;  a few copies were available at the back of the room, on a separate table, in binders. Board President Wilkerson displayed on the large screen how members of the public can view meeting information on their smartphones or tablets. Even if community members have the technology, which many do not,  attempting to view pages of material and attachments is close to impossible on a small screen. When the Board is spending millions and making decisions affecting students and staff, all members of the public should be able to have easy access to all meeting materials. APPS members sent a letter to the Board after the October meeting asking the Board to address these and other issues.

The Board approved minutes from the October 18, 2018 Action Meeting.

The meeting opened with a lovely student performance from a Frankford High School musical group.  Six student musicians and their teacher went to considerable effort to perform at this meeting which took place during the first snowstorm of the season.  Most surrounding public school districts dismissed early in order to ensure the safety of students and staff in treacherous conditions. Not only did the District fail to dismiss students early but made the questionable decision not to postpone this meeting, despite dangerous travel conditions being reported on TV and radio. Even more disturbing was the Board’s decision not to send the student musicians home. Couldn’t they have been rescheduled for the December meeting?  President Wilkerson’s attempt at humor fell flat when she commented about getting the meeting started so that everyone could “begin their 3-hour commute home”.

Superintendent’s Remarks

Dr. Hite’s remarks began with extolling the expansion of the arts programs in schools. Since 2013, he said, there have been steady increases in arts programs in the schools; there are  450 art teachers, and every K-8 school now has instrumental music. Hite stated that all students now have access to “the arts” and that research supports the importance of this to student achievement.  Remember that 2013 was the year of the “Doomsday Budget” when the Hite administration cut art and music, librarians, counselors, secretaries, NTAs, and foreign languages from schools across the district. Is it really an accomplishment that 5 years later some of that was given back to our students?

All students in all of our schools deserve the same resources suburban students have, including music instruction and art.  What was the total number of arts teachers prior to 2013? Does the expanding art instruction Dr. Hite is referring to mean each school offers students music and art?  It is good news that this important component to a student’s curriculum is increasing but it is also important to understand  the whole picture.

Dr. Hite noted the philanthropic involvement in the growth of the arts programs both through the Neubauer Foundation as well as the Grammy Music Coalition which recently invested $5 million over three years for music industry-based investments.  More than ever, this is the age of rich donors pouring money into foundations which then contribute and direct how that money is spent in our school district. Public education is a public institution with the public good as its mission.  Public education is not a charity.  Philanthropy should be viewed with caution and critique, not just accepted as something wonderful.

Dr. Hite also commented on the status of substitute nursing.  He said that the contract with the substitute service had been finalized; five openings have been staffed and four upcoming openings are in the process of being filled.  He reported that the District is working with the Policy Lab to review the district’s structure in order to see whether the District can make improvements and fill all vacancies.  Board member Lee Huang asked Hite to confirm that the Policy Lab is affiliated with Children’s Hospital (CHOP). Unfortunately, there was no additional explanation of what this means, what the Policy Lab is, or how they are helping the district.

Committee Reports

Finance and Facilities

President Wilkerson called for committee reports.  Co-chair Leticia Egea-Hinton presented the November 1 Finance and Facilities (F&F) report by summarizing the three main agenda items.  The first addressed the District’s failure to process termination pay for former employees in a timely manner. Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson told the Committee that the District has taken steps to resolve the issue; he expects most cases to be resolved within months. This has been a serious problem,  with employees waiting sometimes over a year for their pay (the PFT contract states employees should receive this pay within 75 days).

The second item was an update on the district’s energy conservation program.  No further information was provided about this topic. The last item on the F&F November 1 agenda addressed the sale of surplus property.  Egea-Hinton said that the Committee wanted to make sure that community members are involved in the decisions about the sale of school district buildings.  She said that the report presented at the November 1 meeting assured the Committee that the community had been engaged in the sale of Pepper Middle School and Communication and Technology High School, both located in Southwest Philadelphia.

[Go to the  BOE website in order to see the agenda and presentations and to watch the video of the meeting.  Go to appsphilly.net to read our reports of all Board Committee meetings.]

Student Achievement and Support

Co-chair Angela McIver reported on the Committee’s November 8 meeting.  She announced that the date of the next Committee meeting has been changed to December 6 (same time, 5 PM).  McIver stated that community members, parents, and students testified about the new District-Wide Comprehensive Plan. The Plan will be on the agenda at the December 6 meeting also.  The District is accepting public comments on this plan until November 28, 2018.  (To view the Comprehensive Plan,  go to https://www.philasd.org/teachingandlearning/2018/11/06/districts-comprehensive-plan/ )

Policy Committee

Chair Wayne Walker announced that the next quarterly meeting of this Committee will be held on Thursday, January 10, 2019  at 10:00 a.m.

District Partnership and Community Engagement

Co-chair Mallory Fix Lopez announced that this Committee’s first meeting will be held on Thursday, November 29, 2018 at 5 PM at the MLK Recreation Center, 2101 Cecil B. Moore Avenue.  The Committee wants to hear from the public on a number of questions, including: how do we improve parent engagement, what is our shared meaning of parent engagement, and what are some barriers to parent engagement?  Part of the Committee’s work in the next two months will be to select members of the 12-member Parent and Community Advisory Council. Fix Lopez also invited the public to attend the Board’s first appearance in City Council on Tuesday November 27, 2018 at 10 AM.  As part of the transition to local control, the Board will report to City Council at least once a year.

[Note: the Board has scheduled this meeting despite our notifying them of  a conflict with the Lamberton SGS/Findings and Feedback meeting at the same time. This is not the best way for the Board to show its commitment to public engagement.]

Student Representatives Report

Alfredo Practico presented the non-voting student representatives’ report.  He said that both non-voting reps strongly support Policy 232 which should encourage student voice.  They are working on a schedule for visiting schools and will post on the district website when this is finalized.  Finally, they will be working to meet with student activist groups to find ways to work together for the improvement of public schools.  The public can follow the student representatives on twitter at @PHLstudentreps.

Speakers on Action Items

Do to the inclement weather, only one-third of the registered speakers were able to get to the meeting.  The only APPS member to make it was co-founder Lisa Haver, who notified the Board, as she did in October, that crucial information was missing from the Action Item authorizing personnel terminations. Haver pointed out that the Board cannot vote on incomplete Action Items, then add language afterwards. That is a falsification of the public record and a violation of the PA Sunshine Act. Haver also asked the Board members to deliberate on Action Items 25 and 26–contracts for consultants and legal firms–before voting. Board member Fix Lopez did ask Dr. Hite to explain the need for the $120,000/10-month consultant contract.  Hite stated that the consultant would not give advice on matters of law but on the setting of policy both at the local and state level that affects public education. Without a policy expert’s advice, he said, the district finds itself reacting to policies made rather than being in a position to shape policy. Haver pointed out that Item 26, in which the Board approves hiring two more outside legal firms, does not specify what work the firms would be doing or what their hourly rate is. She said that this way of doing business gives the appearance of a “slush fund” for law firms; APPS member Ilene Poses made this same objection in her written testimony to the Board. If the Board approves spending without informing the public of its purpose and cost, that constitutes a violation of the Sunshine Act.

Board Continues SRC Practice of Block Voting

Action Item 1 regarding a change in the Speakers Policy passed unanimously. Action Item 2 was on the agenda as a review of District policies; the Board will vote on them at its December 13 meeting. President Wilkerson then called for votes on Action Items 3 through 29.  Fix-Lopez abstained from Item 22; the remaining votes passed unanimously. The Board passed Action Items 30 to 40 in the second block. Lee Huang abstained from Item 33.

Speakers on General Topics

Four members of the public braved the elements to passionately and eloquently exhort the BOE to deny all new Charter School applications.   Lisa Haver told the Board that the District cannot afford any more charters and does not need any more charters. She reminded Board members that APPS members have gone to all of the Focus meetings at the three SGS/Priority schools and that parents, community members, staff, and students have been clear about their school’s needs: counselors, aides, librarians, and anti-bullying programs. Parents do not want their neighborhood schools competing with charters for scarce dollars.

Tonaiya Coffer, a parent of three charter school students, urged the Board to stop the rapid expansion of charter schools.  She does not believe, as some charter parents do, that public schools are a substandard choice.  Temple Law Professor and charter expert Susan DeJarnett dispelled the myth that the District cannot take into account financial ramifications when approving charter school applications.  She promised the Board a 40-page law review article in the near future to support her testimony. She noted that the extensive research she has done on this topic will fully support the debunking of this myth.

Kendra Brooks, a public school parent and member of the Our City Our Schools (OCOS) Coalition, advocated for a moratorium on charter school expansion. She stated that OCOS has begun a campaign to push the city to end the 10-year tax abatement in order to help fund our schools. However, as a concerned parent, she wants the district to do its part by recognizing the fiscal irresponsibility of approving any more charter schools.

Parent Patricia Gillet spoke on the harmful practice of leveling and repeated some of the District’s usual excuses: it costs too much to fully staff schools and we have to follow the PFT contract.  Gillet said that no other district engages in this harmful practice, not even Chicago–a district larger than Philadelphia with just as many challenges. She then challenged the Board to a homework assignment:  that the Board and the Hite administration provide to the public the outline of a plan, by January 31, 2019, to end the practice of leveling for the 2019/20 school year. At the conclusion of Gillet’s remarks, Hite responded with exactly with Gillet pointed out in her remarks – excuses.  He quibbled with Gillet’s semantics, remarking that Gillet should not conflate leveling with fully staffing.  In other words, he made excuses for continuing the harmful practice of leveling. Fortunately, Board members indicated to Gillet that they would be addressing the issue.

Teacher Jessica Way testified on the issue of increasing paperwork and decreasing teacher creativity with the proposed change in lesson plan guidelines.  She clearly explained how the proposed changes could have the consequence of standardizing all teachers which leads to a decline in creative learning while adding considerably to the amount of paperwork teachers have to do.  She gave many examples of simple tasks that have been remade into complicated paper trails. The resulting burden on a teacher’s time reduces their actual ability to meet the diverse needs of their students.

Superintendent Hite acknowledged that this was not the intent of the lesson plan changes and offered to sit down with Jessica and a group of teachers to look at the ramifications of this proposed change.  Way eagerly accepted.

Next Board of Education Action Meeting:  Thursday December 13 at 5 PM.  Call 215-400-4180 by 3 PM the previous day to sign up to speak.  Written testimony can be sent to the Board at schoolboard@philasd.org