Ears on the Board of Education: November 19, 2020

by Diane Payne

Board President Joyce Wilkerson opened this remote Action Meeting with praise and thanks to the University of Pennsylvania for its $100 million donation–$10 million over the next 10 years–toward the abatement of lead and asbestos in District schools.   

For years, public school advocates have fought to have Penn and other large non-profit institutions to pay at least part of their fair share of taxes on their profit-making properties through PILOTS (Payment in lieu of taxes). 

That fight has escalated as the District faces dire budget projections as a result of loss of tax revenues during the pandemic. Is there no other way for the District to pay for fixing toxic schools other than taking charity?  APPS’ recent report on Renaissance charter schools shows that the District spends hundreds of millions every year to sustain a program that has not, by any metric, been a success in improving schools.  (In just one example, the District allocated $30 million last year to Aspira, Inc. to operate two Renaissance charters–even after the Board voted not to renew after they failed to meet all standards.) Penn has a  $15 billion endowment.  Paying its full share of taxes would have Penn paying approximately $100 million per year.  Advocates have estimated that PILOTS would  produce 40% of that,  or close to $40 million per year.  The District and the media may paint Penn as generous, but the reality is they are getting off cheap.  Advocates vow to keep the pressure on Penn and the other mega nonprofits in the city to do their part and pay their fair share.

Public Again Shut Out of Board Nominating Process

All seven of the remaining Board members attended.  Mallory Fix Lopez returned from medical leave.  President Wilkerson announced that the non-renewal hearing for Universal Bluford and Universal Daroff have ended.  Public testimony will be accepted until December 14th.  APPS members attended every one of the ten days, listening to Universal lawyers (whose fees the public pays) repeat questions and recall witnesses to dissect minutiae in an effort to divert from the fact that the two Renaissance charters did nothing close to “effect dramatic change” as they had promised.

Wilkerson reported that Mayor Kenney’s Nominating Panel convened earlier that week in order to nominate three candidates for the School Board.  Chris McGinley resigned in April and Akeem Akbar resigned in October; Lee Huang has also submitted his resignation but will remain on the Board until a replacement is selected.  The 9-member Panel will review all applications and choose nine nominees (three for each vacancy) to present to the Mayor. As in 2018 and 2019,  the Mayor has directed the Panel to conduct all deliberations in executive session, thus completely shutting out  the already disenfranchised public. As APPS  told the Mayor and the Nominating Panel (whose Chair is a constitutional law professor)  in 2018, this is a clear violation of the PA Sunshine Act. 

The 22-minute remote meeting held on November 17 did not allow any public testimony or any type of public interaction.  The Panel had decided only to accept written testimony.  APPS co-founder Lisa Haver decried this disenfranchisement in a January 2018 op-ed.  Although there was widespread media coverage of the charitable donation from Penn, not a single newspaper, TV station, or radio station covered the Nominating Panel’s closed-door meeting. 

Hite Postpones Building Reopenings

Hite also opened his remarks by thanking Penn. He confirmed the news reports that the District would be postponing its hybrid reopening plan until at least January 1, 2021. Hite said that COVID cases must be in the City’s “moderate” range for two consecutive weeks before his Hybrid Learning Implementation Pathways could be re-considered.  He again reviewed the six categories of readiness (which can be viewed on the District website –>Board of Education page–>Meeting Materials tab for this meeting).   

As noted from previous meetings and presentations on this Implementation PowerPoint, the “Green” designation, which most would interpret as “ready to go”,  is actually only “on-track” to be ready.  Is this confusing use of terms just poor design or an intentional manipulation of language?  For months, at both Action and Committee meetings, the topic of ventilation has been raised, and every time the Board accepts the Administration’s  incomplete and contradictory responses. Would  Dr. Hite or any  Board member want their children or grandchildren sitting in a classroom with barely functioning ventilation systems? Would they be happy with the District suggesting that fans are an adequate alternative? As of now, twenty-four schools have not passed the District’s ventilation clearance; seventeen of those schools serve K-2 student populations.

After questions from Board members about whether the District was adequately addressing mental health needs of students during the pandemic, Hite said he would present information on that at the next meeting.  He assured members that a variety of services are in place.  Fix Lopez raised a question regarding principals’ fears that schools will be penalized for poor test scores.  Hite assured the Board that all testing is being done to provide teachers with information and not to penalize anyone.  

Hite told the Board that the District schools are reporting daily attendance rates at 90% or better but that  only 64% of the students in Philadelphia have good attendance–that is, attending 95% days or more.  Both numbers should be examined more carefully.  Does 90% attendance mean the student is actually there for the entire day?  If only 64% attend 95+% days or more what does the attendance look like for the other 36%?  Also asked again  was how many students are unaccounted for–an important point which should not have been left out of the  PowerPoint, especially since the question had been raised at previous meetings.  It was never made clear how many students remain unaccounted for and what the Administration is doing to locate them.  

Five New Charter Applications Submitted to District

Charter School Office Chief Christina Grant narrated a PowerPoint presentation on the five new charter applications just submitted. In a normal year, the District could not  afford more charter schools and does not need any more charter schools. The Board has heard Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson’s budget projections over the past six months and the financial abyss the District is approaching. Aspira, Inc. actually submitted applications for two new charters even though the Board has voted not to renew the company’s two Renaissance charters due to financial and academic failure.

Fix Lopez asked when Policy 141, postponed after she went on medical leave, would be up for a vote. McColgan told her that the Board would vote on its deletion at the December Action Meeting.  Renaissance schools are District neighborhood schools that were turned over to charter operators in order to effect “dramatic change”.  APPS has advocated, both in testimony to the Board and through submission of written reports,  to not eliminate  Policy 141.   As the policy is written, it contains strong oversight parameters for the Board which should remain in effect.  APPS advocates for an honest evaluation of these schools. Those schools who failed to turn the schools around as promised should be returned to District control. 

Board Votes on Action Items

There were only twelve Action Items on this month’s agenda. 

Item 4:  Item on personnel terminations was withdrawn before voting. 

Items 3 and 5:  Passed unanimously. 

Item 2:  Voted on separately at the request of Fix Lopez. APPS co-founder Lisa Haver remarked on this Item in her testimony. She noted that the $30,000 donation raised by the Friends of Chester Arthur for resurfacing the berm in the school yard is one more example of inequity in the District.  In addition, the Item stated that the parent group negotiated the contract for the berm resurfacing.  Is that legal?  Can parent groups negotiate or select contractors?  During Board discussion of this item, Fix Lopez pursued the question of equity as she has in the past.  She asked the Board to commit to taking action on the issue of equity. They must address the inequity inherent in “Friends of”  groups raising funds for their school while other schools are left to suffer.  Several other Board members agreed that this is in need of discussion and action, but only Fix Lopez voted against the Item. Passed 6-1.

Items  6-12: Passed unanimously except for Fix Lopez and Huang abstentions on Item 12.

Public Speakers Advocate for Equity and Against “Grit” 

Three APPS members spoke at this Action Meeting and two additional members sent in written testimony.  (All APPS testimonies are available at APPSPhilly.net.)   Several speakers, including Haver, spoke against the District bringing the “Grit” program to students.  A recent Inquirer article told of the District’s teaming up with University of Pennsylvania professor and author Angela Duckworth:  In the spring semester, the class (Grit Lab: Fostering Passion and Perseverance) will also be open to Philadelphia high school students via the university’s Young Scholars program.  Haver testified that research has shown that grit is not a beneficial program for students, especially students of color in urban districts. In many ways, it absolves those in power from their responsibility to provide housing, education, jobs and other necessities while telling young people that the real problem is their lack of grit. Several subsequent speakers echoed Haver’s position that the District should not be fostering this harmful ideology.  A number of speakers identified the irony and duplicity in the University of Penn’s “generous donation” to the District.  Advocates for public education are not fooled by a charitable donation that hides a real obligation.  

Several speakers, including students, called for the Board to change the non-voting status of the two student representatives to full voting members.  Wilkerson noted that she asked Board staff to research that request and report back on the possibility of voting student representatives.  The City Charter mandates only non-voting student representatives; in order to change that, a citywide referendum would have to be placed on the ballot.