Ears on the Board of Education: October 22, 2020

by Diane Payne

This month’s Board of Education Action Action Meeting featured administration PowerPoints that again failed to reflect the experiences and needs of those on the ground.  Many of the seventy-four registered speakers testified to this lack.  The Hite administration now requires Pre-K to Grade 2 staff to return to buildings on November 9th to prepare for the return of students on November 30th–in spite of still incomplete ventilation reports.  COVID’s main form of transmission is through the air.  People of color are statistically more likely to contract and to die from the illness.  Many older District buildings with asbestos, mold and lead were unsafe for children and adults  before COVID.  Now staff, students, families, and community members are being asked to trust that the District gets this right.  The neglect of the District has caused the illness and impending death of one teacher (that we know of) from mesothelioma.  Failure this time will have immediate and devastating consequences.


The Board is down to six of the nine required members.  Chris McGinley resigned in April, 2020, but Mayor Kenney has yet to reconvene his Nominating Panel.

Ameen Akbar, appointed last May, resigned unexpectedly due to family medical issues.  Mallory Fix Lopez is on medical leave until December.  The remaining six Board members were present, as well as the two student representatives and Superintendent Hite.  September Action Meeting Minutes were approved.  President Joyce Wilkerson thanked Mr. Akbar and wished him and his family the best. She congratulated Paul Robeson High School Principal Richard Gordon for being named the National Principal of the Year. APPS also congratulates Principal Gordon and the entire Paul Robeson school community.   

Superintendent Presentation: PowerPoint v. Reality

Hite presented his updated hybrid reopening plan, scheduled to begin in a few weeks.  (All District meetings can be viewed by going to the Board’s web page and clicking on “Watch Previous Board Meetings”. All agendas and PowerPoint presentations can be viewed by going to the Board’s Meeting Materials page and clicking on the desired meeting.) 

Hite’s Digital Learning Implemental Pathway contains six categories of readiness: Digital Enablement, Academics, Staff Coverage, Building Readiness, People Preparedness, and School Operational Readiness. Building Readiness is the box most of those involved are waiting to see checked off. At every recent Action and Committee meeting in which Hite or his Chief of Staff has presented the plan, this box has been checked Green for “Ready”.  Every time,  they tell the Board that the ventilation reports are being conducted but not completed.  Neither Board members nor public speakers can get a straight answer to why is this box checked “Ready” when ventilation reports are incomplete?.  Where are the results of those inspections? 

Teachers and staff are scheduled to return in a few weeks, but no information was presented on who is doing these “Certified Air Balancing” reports.  What are their professional certifications? Where can completed reports be viewed by the public?  Hite’s statement that the District has a “nice little chart” on ventilation  is disconcerting.  The public does not want District-made charts that present no definitive information.   Nowhere has the District published the names of the companies doing the Certified Air Balancing reports.  Companies who provide this service should be certified in Testing, Adjusting, and Balancing (TAB).  Where does the District list these companies and their certification credentials? 

In the place of real information, Chief Operating Officer Reggie McNeil presented an embarrassingly inane, cartoonish tutorial video on Air Balancing that Board members viewed passively.  And it actually went downhill from there, with McNeil saying that one solution to the ventilation problem was opening windows. Rather than ask how that would work during the winter months, as we approach another COVID spike, the Board offered only the “Okay” heard from Julia Danzy. No one questioned McNeil’s  suggestion to have staff unplug coffee pots and small refrigerators to conserve energy. Do Board members actually believe that those are the biggest energy users in large school buildings? No mention was made of the MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) on safe school reopening signed by the leadership of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) just days before; thus, no information provided from either Hite or McNeil on what must be in place for this MOU to ensure schools can safely reopen.  Many public speakers testified about the dangers of Hite’s reopening plan. When the Hite administration presents incomplete information, and Board members accept that without challenge, people naturally have little trust in those entrusted to  keep students and staff safe. 

Committee Reports

The Joint Committee Meeting of the Student Achievement and Support (SAS) and the Finance and Facilities (F & F) convened on October 8th.  APPS’ members attended, testified, and reported on this meeting. 

SAS Chair Angela McIver read the  Student Achievement Committee summary.  Since there was no advance presentation of the Keystone Academy Charter renewal (Item 31) at the Committee meeting, Mc Iver asked Charter Chief Christina Grant to give a brief presentation. The Board added this Item just a few days before this Action Meeting, and the Item, as usual, did not include the content of the actual renewal agreement before the Board.  Grant did not explain, nor did the Board question,  why Keystone’s administration had refused to sign their agreement in 2017 when the previous charter expired. It is common for the Board to allow charter operators to continue to operate without a new agreement. The Charter Schools Office recommended a five-year renewal with unknown conditions for Keystone.  The CSO and the Board continues their pattern of violation of the Sunshine Act by not providing the complete text, including cost, of the renewal agreement.  (Before the vote, APPS had District Counsel Lynn Rauch read our objection to the Board’s voting in secret on an agreement the public knew nothing about, a clear violation of the PA Sunshine Act. Lisa Haver, in her testimony, characterized Keystone and other Northeast charters, with many fewer African-American students that District schools, as “the Building Trades of charter schools”.) The racial, economic, ELL, and special ed enrollments do not mirror District schools. This is not Board oversight–it is rubber stamping.   

Grant then told the Board that ten organizations had sent “Letters of Intent” to open new charter schools.  Final applications are due in November.  (Adding insult to injury, Aspira, Inc, whose academic and financial failures at two Renaissance charters led to a rare vote of non-renewal, sent a letter of intent to open another charter school.) The Board must hold fast to its record of not approving any new charter schools. Remember that the District was forced to accept new applications as a last-minute addition to the 2014 cigarette tax passed in Harrisburg, just one of the ways that the Republican-controlled legislature usurps local control. Obviously, the District cannot afford any new charter schools, especially in this time of economic crisis. Lee Huang led a discussion on October 8 of the possibility of closing neighborhood schools. If Huang and the Board members who perpetuated this thought actually believe that we can’t afford to keep public schools open, then they certainly cannot in good conscience approve any privately-managed school funded by District dollars.  

Chair Leticia Egea-Hinton read the Finance and Facilities Committee Report.

Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson offered  two brief updates. Cyber charter enrollment has increased 22%, not 13% as previously reported.  Other charter admissions have increased since last year, but at a rate lower than budgeted.  Chief Operating Officer Reggie McNeill reviewed the reasons for change orders that raise the costs of any job or service already contracted.  When a change order appears on the Action List to be voted on, the information provided is generic and not specific to that change order. Neither the Board nor the public gets specific information on why any changes are  needed.  On this agenda, Action Item 13 lists a generic change order covering various vendors for $330,851.  No information is provided to explain the why or who underlying this request.  

Chair Maria McColgan presented the Policy Committee report.  The Policy Committee did not meet this month but McColgan repeated her previous statements, first made at the Committee’s special meeting on September 10, on the proposed deletion of Renaissance Schools Policy 141.  First, McColgan said that no Renaissance Schools will be closed based on the policy change.  She reiterated her assurances to charter operators that this is in no way a commentary on their schools. McColgan then addressed APPS’ assertion (without mentioning APPS) that the Board is abdicating its responsibility over these schools.  She insisted that the Board will still oversee the Renaissance Schools. McColgan’s reassurances to charter operators, with no acknowledgement of their failure to meet basic standards,  actually represent the Board’s first abdication of its responsibility.  Her statements that no changes will be made in oversight of Renaissance schools are premature,  and they signal a continuation of the Board’s active protection of all charter operators. Renaissance Schools are not part of the normal cohort of charter schools. They were set up as a separate category of turnaround schools as part of Superintendent Arlen Ackerman’s Imagine 2014 plan. These were District schools handed over to Charter Operators.  The Renaissance Policy,  adopted by the SRC, mandates “increased accountability” for these schools.  The companies who took over neighborhood schools as Renaissance charter operators promised to “effect dramatic change”. A report compiled by APPS and sent to the Board days before the Action Meeting shows that none of the Renaissance charter operators kept this promise. The Policy clearly states that the District can invoke its own “discretion” to revoke a Renaissance charter and restore District control. Unfortunately, the District, under both SRC and Board leadership, has failed to invoke that discretion, and has spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on weeks-long legal hearings.  No action by this Board can erase the original mission of Renaissance schools to improve the education of the children at those schools.  Deletion of Policy 141 would eliminate the Board’s oversight of the twenty-one Renaissance schools, thus defaulting to the state’s PA Charter law. That would mean less oversight, not more.  Despite McColgan’s protestations, the Board would be abdicating its oversight of this special category of schools to the state. The people of Philadelphia fought too hard for local control to have the Board cede some of that control back to Harrisburg. 

The Board abolished its Parent and Community Engagement Committee in 2019, just one year after they established it.  Julia Danzy, at this meeting, introduced a member of the Parent and Community Advisory Council whose name, as usual, was not listed on the agenda.  We have pointed out for months that this omission signals a lack of respect for both the Council and the members who come to testify.  Although created as a replacement  for the Community Engagement Committee, these meetings are not posted on the District website and are not open to the general public. This  unnamed parent from Northeast Philadelphia read an anecdotal report based on conversations with unidentified parents at unidentified schools.  None of the reports are posted on the District website.  Does the Board value the work of the Council?  It doesn’t seem like it. 

Public Speakers on Action Items

APPS members spoke in defense of public education, urging the Board to reject deletion of Policy 141. They also pointed out again that the Board’s deletion of the District’s Speakers Policy last year eliminated the provision that people on both sides of an issue will be heard. 

Members of Philly Student Union (PSU) spoke against Action Item 15 purchase of new and “softer” school safety officer uniforms.  PSU has been fighting for police -free schools and an end to the school-to-prison pipeline. A vote for “softer” uniforms is one more example of District administration listening without hearing.

Board Votes Ignore Community Concerns

Item 1: Review of Policy Changes (Board will take final vote in November).  McIver made a motion from the floor to withdraw Policy 141 Renaissance Charter Schools from the list of other Policy changes. She stated that  Board Member Fix Lopez had sent a request that the Board put this policy on the December agenda when she will return from medical leave.  The motion passed 5-1, with Wilkerson dissenting. This portion of the policy will now be voted on in December. (Wilkerson again failed to take public speakers on this motion from the floor, as mandated by the 2015 Sunshine Act settlement with APPS). 

Item 7:  Withdrawn by staff.

Items 5 and 6:  Passed unanimously

Item 22, Canvas Learning Management System : McIver and McColgan both expressed doubts that teachers were engaged in this selection process; they also expressed concern about spending such a large amount of money when resources are already stretched.  Asked to address these concerns before the vote, both Hite and Chief of Academic Support Malika Savoy-Brooks gave the Board just enough  information to approve the $1.7 million expenditure,  which many District staff  members, at this and previous meetings, urged them not to. In answer to McColgan’s question of “are we sure we are buying the right LMS?” Savoy-Brooks said that the District was slowly phasing in the system.  McColgan did not seem to notice the non sequitur.  When asked how teachers were engaged in the selection process, Savoy-Brooks noted that school leaders, her team, surveys, and emails aided in the selection process.  Again Board Members seemed not to notice that this did not answer the question.  President Wilkerson then stated that she “trusted the District’s ability” with selecting Canvas.  Item 22 passed 5-1, McIver dissenting. 

Action Item 31, Keystone Academy Charter Renewal.  District Council Lynn Rauch read into the record APPS objection to this vote as a failure to adhere to the Sunshine Law.  The Sunshine Act requires the full text of items being voted on is included at the time of the vote.  The Board violates this law with every charter renewal vote. The day following the vote, the official Agenda is rewritten with the full text of the Item as it was voted on but not as the public was allowed to see it. That is a falsification of the public record. The Board knowingly and repeatedly violates the law.   The Item passed unanimously. 

The Board took one block vote on Action Items 2-4, 8-21, 23-30; all passed unanimously. 

Health and Safety Take a Back Seat to Administration Wishes

The remaining forty-six speakers included five additional APPS members. Many District teachers and staff members spoke against the planned November return to in-person learning.  Their fears, concerns, and issues went unanswered by the Board.  Board members asked Hite questions about spending money on a contract, but they felt no need to do so when it came to the health and safety of students, staff, and their extended families.  The shameful irony of holding a remote meeting to approve sending children and adults back into buildings was not lost on those who will be risking their health and their lives.