Ears on the Board of Education: October 17, 2019

by Diane Payne

This meeting’s agenda held two hot-button items.  Two Renaissance charter schools, Aspira Olney High School and Aspira Stetson Middle School, had been recommended for non-renewal twice, in 2016 and 2019, as a result of Aspira’s failure to meet academic, financial, and organizational standards. Aspira’s admittedly improper, often fraudulent, financial practices had been well documented in the local media since 2013.  APPS members had testified, written letters, and appealed to local elected officials to resolve the Aspira matter after postponements by both the SRC and the Board. The District held 16 days of legal hearings last Spring in which lawyers for Olney and Stetson failed to refute the many deficiencies exposed by the Charter School Office (CSO). Rudolph Garcia, who presided over those hearings, had presented his report to the Board last week.  Garcia echoed the CSO’s recommendation for non-renewal. Aspira brought staff, parents and students to fight for continued Aspira control of the schools, touting the improved climate at the schools. But last-minute personal testimonies do not negate extensive documentation of the many flagrant deficiencies across all domains at these two charter schools.


All Board members were present: President Joyce Wilkerson, Vice-president Wayne Walker, Julia Danzy, Leticia Egea-Hinton, Mallory Fix Lopez, Lee Huang, Maria McColgan, Chris McGinley, and Angela McIver.  Student representatives Doha Ibrahim and Imere Williams were also present.

The Lesson Planners, a musical group comprised of six teachers from various public schools, opened the meeting with vocal performances. Following the music, the September 2019 Action Meeting Minutes were approved.

President Wilkerson’s Remarks

President Wilkerson stated that she would be traveling to Harrisburg the following week to testify before the PA Senate’s Education Committee in support of Governor Wolf’s efforts toward reform of the PA Charter School Law.  She explained that the Law is 20 years old and woefully inadequate, and that reformation of the law will serve all students, both public and charter. She encouraged the public to join in and raise their voices in support of charter reforms.

Wilkerson reiterated how serious the Board considers the Ben Franklin/SLA  construction fiasco; she said that the Board would closely monitor the District’s actions as it moves forward with all projects. What Wilkerson failed to address was her continued support of Dr. Hite in despite the Inquirer article exposing how District officials ignored, failed to report, or deliberately withheld, information about the construction problems from this Board and the public.  At last month’s Action Meeting, and before the article’s exposé, Wilkerson affirmed her support of the Superintendent through this crisis. But this article uncovered gross negligence on the part of the Hite administration in the entire year leading up to the crisis. Is Wilkerson saying that the top administrator should not be held accountable for that? Are administrators held to a different standard of accountability than teachers and staff?

Wilkerson addressed the recently released outcomes of student achievement.  She noted the limitations of standardized testing but said that we still must do better.  She noted that Action Items 2,3,4,and 5 are walk-on financial Action Items and invited the public to register at that time to speak on these items.

Superintendent’s Remarks

Dr. Hite’s comments began with the Ben Franklin/Science Leadership Academy (BFHS/SLA) construction issue.  He reiterated the administration’s commitment to addressing environmental concerns in District buildings for the benefit of students and staff.  He said that his administration will be reviewing policy and will engage the community in this process. He failed to offer any explanation of the investigated claims in the above-mentioned Inquirer article.

Hite also shared a power-point and general information on the Comprehensive School Plan Review (CSPR),  a multi-year process to determine how populations in communities will change in the near future. The process will consist of four distinct cycles with four distinct goals.  All meetings will be held in the evening and translation services will be provided. Hite said the meeting schedule will be on the CSPR page of the SDP website in two weeks.

Fix Lopez asked Hite why there was still no information on the website about where and how the magnet schools fit in.  She stated that Board Members have repeatedly asked for clarification on how these schools will fit into the process and there is still nothing available.  Hite stated he didn’t know why it was not up on the website and he would have to look into it–which is the same response the Board has already received.

(At the conclusion of the four Committee reports, and some time after Lopez’s question, Hite informed Fix Lopez that he “misspoke” about how special admit schools will fit into the CSPR process.  Actually, they will not be a part of the process because they are program-based and not catchment-based.  The District will only look at how many students from that catchment attend a special admit school and possibly try to replicate those kinds of schools within the catchment. So, after months of asking this same question, Hite comes up with an answer that Board members did not expect.  McIver then suggested that since there appears to be a growing interest in magnet programs, maybe the District should look at expanding. Doesn’t the Board want to improve our neighborhood schools? Will they be left in the dust again?)

Fix Lopez also asked for clarification about open public participation in this process.  She said she has received information that principals are directing certain parents to sign up for the committee rather than the open-to-all format that was originally conveyed.  Hite said that was just to ensure there was a minimal level of participation and that everyone is welcome to participate.

McGinley asked at what point the Board would be involved.  Hite answered that at the end of each cycle, the Board will be asked to vote on the recommendations.  In response to another question from McGinley, Hite said that charter schools with “feeder patterns” (Renaissance charters)  will be a part of the CSPR process. Hite did not offer any clarification on how they would be involved.

Walker asked what the goal of this process is.  Hite answered that it will help the District look at its facilities and how they are utilized, look at assets around the city and see how those assets can be used either during or after school, and to see how to direct future spending.

Understanding what Hite means by looking at assets around the city and how we can use them raises a red flag and needs further clarification.  Is this where the District begins to insert “anywhere learning” and educational badges? There is much to understand about this murky path. To understand the ramifications of this issue, explore the research done by a Philadelphia parent on this topic.

It is difficult for public school advocates not to be fearful of another graveyard of schools coming out of this process. The 23 schools closed in 2013 have left scars around the city in communities left with empty, hulking pieces of history like Germantown High School and gentrified properties still being mourned like Smith School in Point Breeze.  And Hite has not ruled out closing more neighborhood schools.

Hite ended with an announcement about the Student Advisory Committee at which he discusses relevant issues that students bring to these bi-monthly meetings.  All students are welcome.

Committee Reports

All committee meetings can be viewed on the SDP website.  In addition, APPS members attend and report on each committee meeting; these reports can be viewed on the APPS website.

The Finance and Facilities Committee report was presented by Co-chair Lee Huang.  Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson was called to the table to report on the walk-on Action Items which all dealt with a change in borrowing due to a “perfect storm” of factors that make borrowing much more feasible at this moment.

Monson also reported on school leveling which is now complete.  This process removes teachers from a school where projected enrollment is lower than anticipated and moves them to schools with a greater need.  It is a source of conflict and disruption every year. Monson stated fewer teachers were affected this year and this can be viewed as a positive, but the number of special education positions affected is an area that the  District hopes to improve next year. (APPS has questioned why the Chief Financial Officer is reporting on school leveling rather than the Chief Academic Officer–is this only a bottom-line consideration?)

President Wilkerson asked Hite how the District plans to use the money that may be recovered as a result of the increased borrowing power.  Hite said that many of the projects are already in the capital plans and money realized from these borrowing changes will be used to move these capital projects forward. He said that this also allows for the District to go through an RFP process to hire project managers to oversee the projects.  The City of Philadelphia has done this already and is sharing its RFP template with the District.

The Student Achievement Committee report was presented by co-chair Chris McGinley.  He thanked the faculty and students at Ben Franklin and SLA for the outstanding job they have done under extraordinary circumstances; he apologized to the students, in particular the freshmen and seniors, for this disruption in their school year which is time they will never get back.

McGinley told the Board that Hearing Officer Rudy Garcia was in attendance to answer any Board questions on the upcoming Action Items that deal with the two Aspira revocation votes.  The Board had no questions for Garcia.

McGinley noted the Action Items on the agenda that were discussed in Committee the previous week.  Item 15, Coded by Kids, was described in Committee. Item 28 on Mindfulness training was withdrawn from this agenda.  Item 29, MOU with KIPP for college placement services, was withdrawn by administration because of the need for further review.

Several APPS members testified at the Committee meeting in opposition to this proposed contract. In remarks at this Action Meeting, Karel Kliminik APPS co-founder, noted: “KIPP is looking to spread its brand further into Philadelphia, and one way to do it under the radar is as a “gift” to the District.”

This withdrawal gives some hope that the Board will reject it. KIPP touts many self-proclaimed successes but presents little in the way of peer-review research that supports the harsh, no excuses template it follows for educating students.  Neither Hite nor McGinley explained why this Item was withdrawn by staff until the November meeting. But come November, a vote to approve this KIPP program would be one more vote to undermine strong public school policy with self-serving fixes of a product sold by a controversial charter company.  Under Hite, the intrusion of corporate-based solutions has been pervasive.

McGinley then called Christina Grant, Interim Head of the Charter School Office, to give information about the recommendation by the CSO for a 5-year renewal for Mathematics, Civics, and Science Charter School with (unknown) conditions. Grant had told the Committee in June that the recommendation included a “surrender clause”, but that clause disappeared without explanation. This renewal had been postponed since 2017, when the charter school refused to accept any conditions, despite the fact that it failed to meet standards in all major categories.  One never-before-imposed condition was the agreement of the charter school to pay for a special master to oversee and overhaul the school’s special education program (which means the taxpayers actually pay as it has to come out of the school’s budget).  This special ed master was necessary because of the school’s years long abysmal failure to follow Special Education law.

Education Law Center (ELC) attorney Paige Joki reported to the Board that ELC filed a lawsuit earlier that day against Mathematics, Civics, and Science for discrimination against a first-grade student who was admitted to the school, then turned away when her disability was discovered.  Joki urged the Board to consider equity when voting to renew charters.

No surprise–this renewal was approved by an 8-1 vote.  The Board continues its violations of the PA Sunshine Act with the administration’s secret charter school negotiations, failure to fully state the conditions of the renewal at the time of voting, adding the text of those conditions after the meeting, and publicly posting  minutes of the meeting that do not reflect what transpired at the meeting.  APPS’ co-founder Lisa Haver now stands at every Board meeting and publicly objects to this flagrant, ongoing abuse of the Sunshine Act, but she is ignored by all Board members.  As Haver pointed out in her testimony later, the vote was pre-determined by the fact that the Board had already directed Grant to negotiate a settlement with the school. 

The Policy Committee report was presented by  co-chair Maria McColgan. Item 1 was for  review only at this meeting; no vote would be taken.   A vote will be taken on policy changes to Policy 122, 224, 333, 340, and 615  at the November Action meeting. Policies coming up for review at the next Policy Committee meeting are Policy #’s 004, 249, 610.1, 611, 613, 901, and 902.

The Community  Engagement Committee report was presented by co-chair Julia Danzy.  Danzy introduced a member of the Parent Advisory Committee, Catherine Blunt, who gave remarks about the schools she has visited and engaged with as well as goals for the upcoming year. Blunt was a long-time District staff member and principal and is now an active education advocate in her retirement.

The Student Representative report was presented by  Imere Williams. He listed the various meetings the student reps will engage in and the schools they will visit.  He noted they will be using social media platforms to lift the voices of students and invited the public to follow them on Instagram and Twitter at @PHLStudentReps.

Aspira Debacle

State Representative Angel Cruz and State Senator Christine Tartaglione both spoke in support of Aspira Inc. maintaining control of Olney and Stetson. (State Rep. Danilo Burgos and Congressman Brendan Boyle sent in written testimony in support of Aspira; the Board did not make that testimony public even though it is public testimony.) Neither Cruz nor Tartaglione addressed the litany of Aspira’s financial transgressions or the dismal academic performance. APPS members attended all 16 days of legal hearings in April. We did not see any of these four politicians nor their staff then or at any of the SRC or Board meetings over the past 5 years.  One wonders why lawmakers are so willing to defend companies that have, by their own admission, broken the law.

The Board discussion on these two Action Items further descended into the rabbit hole of Charters in Wonderland.  Many of the Board members expressed conflict about voting to revoke these two charters despite the extensive list of deficiencies in every category–academic, financial, and organizational; the weeks of hearings with numerous witnesses and thousands of documents;  two different CSO teams reporting the exact same list of problems and making the same recommendation. The hand-wringing some of the Board members engaged in was shocking to those who have followed the Aspira debacle and assumed the vote would be over quickly. McColgan said that the prospect of voting to return the schools to local control  “makes me physically sick to my stomach”. Many of the statements made by Board members calls into question their commitment and belief in the public schools they are appointed (not elected) to serve. Board members openly questioned the District’s ability to do better for these two schools than an organization that engages in fraudulent financial dealings.  That was a shocking statement from the very people who have promised to “do better.” Because of the level-headed and factual remarks of Wilkerson and McGinley, the vote to deny renewal passed 8-1, with Fix Lopez dissenting. McGinley stated that if this Board fails to vote for revocation with all of the background work done to expose the failings of both schools, the Board will be hard pressed to vote for any future revocation no matter how flagrant.   Unfortunately, Aspira will continue to operate for at least another year as it invokes its right under the PA Charter Law to take its case to the State Charter Appeal Board and to Commonwealth Court.

Public Speakers on Action Items

APPS co-founder Lisa Haver called on the Board to vote in favor of revocation of Aspira charters, opening her remarks by stating that unlike the politicians who spoke before her, she would be referring only to facts in regard to Stetson and Olney’s deficiencies.  Haver also urged the Board to vote to deny Mathematics, Civics and Science another renewal as the school’s performance has been substandard for many years. She pointed out that as the Board continues to hold secret negotiations with charter operators, and to renew low-performing charter schools, the public has come to see these actions as politically motivated.

Board Votes on Action Items 

Item 28:   Withdrawn by staff

Item 29:    Withdrawn until November meeting

Item 28:    No vote–review only

Item 34:   Passed 8-1, Fix Lopez dissented.

Item 35:   Passed 8-1, Fix Lopez dissented.

Item 36:   Passed 8-1, Fix Lopez dissenting.

Item 6:     Passed 8-0, Huang abstained without explanation. The District and CHAD have an agreement to close the charter school.  Via this MOU, the School District and CHAD have: (i) set forth currently agreed upon details regarding the development of the New School and (ii) committed to continued collaboration on the development of plans for programs to be implemented at the new school. More questions than answers on this Item.

Items 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6, the walk-on borrowing items, were all voted on separately.  Each passed unanimously.

Items 7, 8, 12-27 30-33: voted on as a block.  All items passed unanimously except for McGinley’s No vote on Items 18 and 19. These two items dealt with the new school being built on Ryan Avenue in the Northeast; McGinley expressed concerns about being kept updated on phases of this project.

Items 9,10,11:  passed unanimously.

Speakers on General Topics

Five APPS members  spoke in defense of public education; their testimony can be viewed at APPSPhilly.net.  They raised awareness about Extended School Year (ESY), Comprehensive School Planning Review (CSPR), and other issues.  A 20-year classroom assistant, Patricia Brown from Ben Franklin High, gave a moving testimony listing the names and positions of past staff members at Ben Franklin who have contracted cancer.  Her ask of the Board was to screen the current staff at this school to create a baseline so that the health of staff can be monitored.