Ears on the Board of Education: September 17, 2020

by Diane Payne

The Board managed to hit many lows during this September remote Action Meeting. Just hours before the meeting started, registered public speakers on action items received an email message with their zoom confirmation that stated “…the Board President will be interrupting the testimony of those individuals not speaking on the topic under which they registered and directing the host to mute their lines.”  [Bold added] The absolute control the Board has over the public process during the quarantine took a chilling turn with this threat. Board members Mallory Fix Lopez and Angela McIver spoke against the directive during the meeting, and Wilkerson seemed to relent; but several speakers were cut off when they attempted to speak on more than one topic. APPS members pointed out in their testimonies that this comes on the heels of the Board’s allowing unlimited time in several consecutive meetings to the Hilco, Inc. officials who lobbied the Board–successfully, as it turns out–for a major tax break.   

During Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson’s presentation on projected budget shortfalls, Lee Huang dropped his own bomb: suggesting the closure of public schools as a solution to a financial crisis. Several Board members spoke in agreement, using familiar buzz phrases like “tough decisions” and “difficult move”, forcing us to relive the trauma of 2013 when the SRC approved the Hite administration’s permanent closure of  23 neighborhood schools. This is disaster capitalism in action. Communities have not recovered from losing those schools, and this Board wants to impose more? If Black Lives really do matter in Philadelphia, the community needs to organize now to stop this.   

Student Representatives Installed

All eight Board Members were present.  (Mayor Kenney has yet to fill the vacant ninth seat left by Chris McGinley’s April resignation.)  Two new student representatives were installed: Toluwanimi Olaleye,  a student at Carver Engineering and Science High School,  and Keylisha Diaz, a student at the Philadelphia Military Academy.  Welcome to both students!  Board President Wilkerson opened the meeting with a statement praising Dr. Hite, his administration, and all the community partners who worked on the remote access school reopening.

Reopening Report Stats Still Don’t Add Up 

Dr. Hite began his remarks by praising the District’s teaching force for their hard work on a difficult school year beginning. Conspicuous by its absence was any discussion of the daily struggles teachers are experiencing, with little administrative support, during remote learning. Nor did Hite report on any progress in negotiations with members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT), whose contract expired on August 31. PFT Local 3 members are engaged in the arduous and unprecedented work required to teach on a completely unfamiliar platform, yet the Hite administration is attempting to make approval of a new contract contingent on staff commitment to return to in-person learning.  “The district concocted an appalling scheme to attempt to make our membership choose between a modest wage increase and their lives,”  PFT President Jerry Jordan told the Philadelphia Inquirer last week.  

The remainder of Hite’s presentation focused on which reopening requirements have been completed.  [All Board meetings can be viewed on the Board homepage.   All meeting materials, agendas, and PowerPoints can be viewed on the meeting materials page.] 

A serious point of contention between the Hite administration and CASA, the principals’ union, has been Hite’s directive that they return to school buildings on September 14. CASA fought to have the date pushed back to November 21. 

The Reopening Readiness Report showed little progress in many of the six main categories.  Some were designated “ready” even though the accompanying number was less than 100%. It seems obvious that a category should only be labeled green when it has reached 100% readiness.  

In a victory for the community members who organized against it, Hite said that the District will not go through with leveling on October 1. Because leveling traumatizes students and destabilizes school communities, parents and educators fight against it every year. The Hite administration sees leveling as an economic decision, not an academic one, which is evident by its placement on the agenda of the Finance and Facilities Committee, not that of the Student Achievement Committee, justified not by the Chief Academic Officer but the Chief Financial Officer. Hite told the Board that leveling may be imposed when students return to school buildings. Will the Board allow this kind of disruption in the middle of the school year? 

Hite made no reference to parent activist Stephanie King, who garnered over 2,000 signatures on an on-line petition in opposition to leveling. King testified and organized a number of parents and educators to do the same. Questions remain about whether Hite would be violating the PFT contract if he were to try to enforce leveling later in the year. 

Board Member Leticia Egea-Hinton asked Hite about the Aimsweb and Star assessments with a disclaimer that having never been a teacher, she knew little about them. That raises the question of why Egea-Hinton voted earlier this year to approve a one-year, $1,800,000 contract with Renaissance Learning that includes Star. Later in this meeting, she voted for an additional $100,000 for professional development for Renaissance Learning in Action Item 9. Perhaps Board members could have a round-table discussion about the efficacy of these programs with the educators who will have to use them.  That would have been a great activity for the Community Engagement Committee. Unfortunately, the Board disbanded that committee after only two meetings last year. 

In response to Huang’s questions about  District communication with staff and families, Hite listed several platforms including a weekly town hall with principals.  Hite did not mention, nor did any Board member ask about, Teamsters Local 502 CASA’s petition of no confidence in Dr. Hite, signed by thousands in a little over a week. Neither Hite nor any Board member  acknowledged the unprecedented and growing outcry from school leaders on the failed leadership of the Hite administration–during Hite’s presentation or after several principals testified later. The Board has a responsibility to listen to people outside the administration, and not for just three minutes at a time. The official power-point presentations do not reflect the experience of teachers, principals, and staff.  Hite’s presentation about the reopening of buildings did not include a date for communicating the specifics about how the hybrid plan would be carried out. McIver asked Hite to provide a date before the October Action Meeting. 

Board Maintains Charter Status Quo 

Co-chair Angela McIver reported on the September 3 Student Achievement Committee. Co-chair Lee Huang read the Finance and Facilities Committee report. Chair Maria McColgan reported on the scheduled September 3 Policy Committee meeting and the special Policy Committee meeting held one week later for the specific purpose of considering the future of the Renaissance charter policy. [All committee meetings and materials can be accessed on the Board website.  APPS attends each committee meeting; our  reports and analyses can be found on the APPS website.]  

McColgan repeated her assurance that the Renaissance program would continue and that the Committee passed no judgement on any individual school or on the program itself.  McColgan failed to acknowledge any of the points brought up by former Board member Chris McGinley, or those raised by many of the speakers at the hearing  on the failings and enormous costs of this initiative. McGinley had proposed, in his final meeting as a Board member, that the Board seriously consider taking back the Renaissance schools that never came close to turning around the schools they took over. McColgan and the Committee seemed to see their mission as maintaining the status quo and ensuring that no real examination of the program take place.  McColgan summarized the brief report given by Charter Schools Office Chief Christina Grant, who had presented the CSO’s recommendation that the Renaissance Charter Policy 141 be eliminated, with certain provisions incorporated into other charter policies. It is important to remember that the CSO reports directly to the Board, not to the Superintendent, as all other District offices do. The CSO does not initiate a proposal on charters. The Board does. Grant’s report raised more questions than it answered, but Board members asked very few. Wilkerson said that the District’s law department would have more information, and that a broader discussion would take place about this program, before the required November vote on any change in the policy.  She did not say when or how that discussion would take place. Questions were raised about the District buildings these schools occupy. The SRC gave control of public buildings to operate, in many ways, as private schools.  Renaissance schools are required to be catchment area schools ensuring neighborhood children a place, but analysis of District data shows that the in-catchment enrollment has diminished as charter operators increasingly recruit outside the area. Hite told the Board that a 3-year study of Renaissance schools by Mathematica will be released in the near future. 

Community Disengagement

Board member Ameen Akbar introduced a Parent and Community Advisory member who gave a report  on stakeholder feedback centered on her Brewerytown section of the city.  As usual this Item was not listed on the agenda, nor was the presenter’s name. Treating parent advisors as an afterthought provides yet another window into how the Board values community engagement. 

Philanthropist Coalition Funds Temporary Internet Access 

City of Philadelphia Chief Education Officer Otis Hackney and City Chief Information Officer Mark Wheeler presented information on the PHLConnectEd program established to make sure all students have internet service. Hackney projected that more than 7,400 families would be connected by the end of the month.  Unfortunately, more than 18,000 families have not yet received a Chromebook. 

This initiative is funded by corporate partners including the Neubauer Foundation, the Lenfest Foundation,  Comcast, the William Penn Foundation, the Philadelphia School Partnership, the Philadelphia Housing Authority, the Hess Foundation, Independence Mission Schools, United Way, and T-Mobile.  Once again, schools and students are placed in the position of charity recipients–from some of the same corporate entities whose tax breaks result in a lack of government funding for education. The question remains: If families must pay for a service in order for their children to attend school, do we still have a system of free public education? 

[This PowerPoint can be found on the meeting materials page of the Board website.  Eligible families will receive two years of free internet service.  The 211 hotline can help families with questions about this program.]  

Board Plants Seeds for Closing Public Schools 

Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Uri Monson provided updated projections on the District’s financial outlook.  [The entire power-point for this presentation can be found on the meeting materials page of the Board website.]  Munson said that an increase in cyber charter school enrollment is costing the District an additional $18 million this year.  Additional items affecting the budget change stem from leveling, meals, cleaning protocols, reopening expenses, contract settlement with 32BJ (maintenance staff) and diminished revenues from the liquor-by-the-drink tax.  Monson’s estimated year end fund balance for SY 2021 is down to between $3.4 and $10.4 million dollars.  

Monson listed other budget uncertainties: a possible mid-year state reduction of funds, passage of the Heroes Act, changing pandemic guidelines, costs related to a PFT contract, and the City’s postponement of property tax reassessment until 2021.

Board member Lee Huang’s response to Monson’s pessimistic predictions was a punch to the gut–his suggestion that closing public schools was an inevitability that the Board should face now. Several Board members including McIver, Fix Lopez and Wilkerson concurred with Huang’s suggestion, dredging up the familiar “hard decision” rationalizations. None of the Board members suggested spending less on outsourced contracts with consultants and edu-vendors or a halt to the regular increases to the slush fund for outside legal firms. Just last week, Board members rushed to reassure charter operators that their schools, no matter how substandard, were in no danger of being closed. Last month, the Board failed to conduct an examination of the stunning report issued by the  District’s Office of Inspector General, which found that the Hite administration mismanaged the Ben Franklin/SLA construction project so completely that its cost ballooned from $10 million to $50 million. 

But not one Board member objected to the thought of closing neighborhood public schools.  For a city devastated by the permanent closure of 23 public schools in 2013, Huang’s vision for the future must have triggered post-traumatic symptoms for parents, students, and staff who lost their neighborhood schools seven years ago. How disappointing to hear the Board that was supposed to bring back local control sow the seeds for the same austerity solutions as the SRC they replaced.  Is Huang or any Board member aware that the District actually saved only 50% of what it promised after it closed those 23 schools?  Will the Board so cavalierly throw another heap of trauma on an already traumatized community?  Huang then inexplicably raised the issue of “stranded costs.”  Is Huang not aware that rising stranded costs are the result of charter expansion?  The students and staff in public schools have had to teach and learn in toxic buildings starved of resources at the same time the SRC and now the Board has rubber-stamped renewals and expansions of substandard charter schools whose CEOs are paid large salaries for managing one or two schools. Stranded costs are the result of charter expansion, not the maintenance of public schools. How does any Board member not understand this?  Hite’s first significant act after being hired in 2012 was to carry out the 2013 school closings.  Hite has steadily followed the corporate disruption agenda during his tenure with school closings, expansion of charters, selling public assets to private interests, and outsourcing of services.  At a time when the community is struggling from the weight of COVID fallouts, it is imperative that we come together to fight for our schools.  As Councilmember Helen Gym said,  Austerity is a choice.” 

Board President Censors Public Speakers 

Some  Board members objected to President Wilkerson’s edict, sent earlier that day, apparently without Board approval or consultation, to limit speakers to only the topic they signed up for or have their mics cut off.   As Fix Lopez and McIver argued, this amounted to a questionable silencing of the public.  Wilkerson argued that anyone who strayed from their designated topic would be violating the Board’s policy. (When APPS protested the Board’s elimination last year of the District’s long standing policy, which guaranteed that persons on both sides of a topic would be heard, our objections were misrepresented and ignored.) Fix Lopez and McIver pointed out that the public should have the right to revise testimony based on information just presented at the meeting, or to have more than one important topic they wish to address.  Wilkerson seemed to be compromising, but she ended up carrying out her directive with many speakers. 

The speakers portion quickly devolved into an unseemly interrogation of speakers by Wilkerson and District Counsel Lynn Rauch. Again, Board members voiced their objections.  At one point, as Wilkerson was attempting to further justify her right to cut off any speaker who had more than one issue to address,  she stated speakers need to “respect the Board’s process.”  Did that apply when Hilco was afforded several opportunities, off the agenda and even during roll call votes, to speak as long as they wanted to lobby for the benefit of their bottom line? 

Unfortunately, the disregard for public expression did not end there. Huang argued that members of the public have other avenues for engagement, such as sending email. At a previous meeting, he said that he would not take time to explain his position on one issue because he had done so on Twitter. Huang fails to acknowledge that Board meetings are the only public forum for those who must live with the fallout of Board decisions to be heard. Speakers not only address the Board members, they address their fellow citizens. 

Six APPS members spoke in defense of public education.  [Testimonies can be viewed on the APPS website.]  Perhaps most heartening was the courage of the principals who returned to explain why they have lost confidence in the Hite administration.  While Board members repeatedly praised Dr. Hite and his senior staff, public speakers told of  their daily struggles as parents and educators. Several principals, in another unprecedented move, urged the Board to negotiate a fair contract for PFT members.  

Board Caves on Hilco Tax Break

The Board reversed its August rejection to extend Hilco, Inc.’s KOZ status when Fix Lopez, McIver and Akbar voted No. The public and private lobbying by Hilco and the Kenney administration paid off when all three reversed themselves as the Board voted unanimously to extend Hilco’s KOZ status until 2033. 

All eight Board members commented or read statements prior to voting. Once again, Wilkerson had City Commerce Director Howard on the line to respond to any Board questions. (Does Parliamentary procedure permit any person to speak during Board voting?)  Huang reiterated that he was abstaining because his company, Econsult, does business with Hilco. McIver began her prepared statement by alluding to poverty, then said she was changing her vote because Hilco had come to the table with promises of jobs for District graduates.  She said that the District should create a department to ensure that Hilco delivers on its promises. 

McIver then said that she wanted to talk about “what trade unions mean in Philadelphia”. She described the city’s building trade unions as private clubs with gatekeepers to exclude the city’s Black and brown people. She said that these unions are 80% white and that 60% of their members live outside the city. Fix Lopez concurred with McIver, saying the Board has a duty to look out for its students, and that District graduates are discriminated against by the building trades. There is no disputing the fact that these unions have discriminated against workers of colors for years. What neither McIver nor Fix Lopez explained was how their vote would change this. Did Hilco promise to exclude union workers at this development? Will they be firing all members of building trades unions currently in their employ? Did the Board get solid numbers of District graduates or minority workers that Hilco would hire over the next 5 or 10 years? Fix Lopez said that now the KOZ made sense to her. She declared her trust in the Mayor Kenney’s  Commerce Department, but said if Hilco did not fulfill its promises, she would be “testifying at City Council”. Neither McIver nor Fix Lopez acknowledged that the Board has no enforcement power if Hilco does not deliver on jobs or on PILOTs. 

McColgan said that she was “not a finance person”, but her understanding was that Hilco would actually be paying more in taxes if the Board approved KOZ status. She asked Monson to explain; he said that the PILOT Hilco agreed to pay would amount to 110% of the value of the property based on the most recent assessment. Wilkerson then asked Howard for her perspective; Howard said that most of the abatement applied to state taxes, not city taxes. 

No one asked what seemed to be an obvious question at this point: Why would a corporation lobby so hard to pay more in taxes?  When Monson said the PILOT would be based on the most recent assessment, that means based on the assessment of the property as it is now–a large contaminated lot with a defunct refinery on it. When Hilco, in four or five years, completes its development of the property, and it is a thriving commercial and industrial hub, by how much will its worth increase?  The 2025 assessment will show a significant increase in value, but Hilco’s PILOT will not increase. Did any member of the Board ask the City to calculate how much the Hilco property will be worth when completed or how much Hilco would be paying in taxes based on that? Did the Board get a good deal–or did the Board get played? 

Action Item 27: Passed 7-0. 

Action Items 10 and 11: Passed unanimously. 

Action Item 30:  Passed unanimously. 

Action Items 1-4, 6-9, 13-26, 28: All passed unanimously except for Items 7 and Item 25. Akbar abstained from Item 7 because he had worked in Building 21; Huang abstained on Item 25 because his company has done work with Drexel.  

Wilkerson revisited Item 30, agreement on a settlement with KIPP Charters over enrollment discrepancy.  She asked Monson to give a summary of the settlement to see whether the Board wanted to take a revote.  After the summary (KIPP will repay $3 million over three years to the District), the Board was satisfied and did not revote.  The vote stands as originally cast.  

The meeting adjourned after six and a half hours.