Ears on the Board of Education: September 19, 2019

By Diane Payne

Seven Mastery Charter Schools and KIPP West Philadelphia Preparatory Charter School were voted on for renewal.  Three of these schools were from the 2015/16 school year. All Charter School negotiations are conducted out of the public view.  Unspecified conditions were originally attached to the school’s renewal by the Charter School Office (CSO) but all conditions were dropped for the renewals on this agenda.  The public has no way of knowing what those conditions were or why those unknown conditions were dropped.

Many staff, parents, and administrators spoke on the toxic conditions found in many of our school buildings advocating for a systemic fix.


President Joyce Wilkerson, Vice-president Wayne Walker, Julia Danzy, Mallory Fix Lopez, Lee Huang, Maria McColgan, Angela McIver, and Chris McGinley were present.  Board member Leticia Egea-Hinton was absent. Nine members of APPS were present; five members spoke in defense of public education and one member submitted written testimony.

Video of the entire Board meeting is posted on the District website and can be found by going to the District website, clicking on Board of Education, scrolling down to “watch previous Board meetings.”

New Student Representatives

The two new non-voting student representatives were welcomed to the Board at this meeting.  Doha Ibrahim from Lincoln High School and Imere Williams from Boys Latin Charter School will serve on the Board for the 2019/20 School Year.  We welcome both students and look forward to their perspective and voice on issues that impact students.

Superintendents Remarks

Superintendent Hite began his remarks by addressing concerns about building safety.  He noted that the District is as careful as it can be with the resources it has and that issues are addressed as they manifest such as closing construction on Ben Franklin/SLA until everyone is certain construction is continuing with safety and rules in place.

What Hite and the Board fails to explain is the spending of millions of dollars in each and every Action Meeting and how those dollars get priority OVER toxic schools.  One example in this meeting’s agenda; Action Item 16 Energy Performance Contract with Johnson Controls, Inc. for GESA-1 for almost $26 million.  This contract is for three schools to receive updates and improvements that will result in energy efficiency.  This is not a bad idea, in fact it is a good idea BUT is it a priority when staff and students could benefit from that $26 million being spent to rid their schools of toxins?

Hite also informed the public that the school selection process opens September 20th for all Kindergarten to twelfth grade students and closes at 5:00 p.m. on November 1st.

Committee Reports and District Presentation

All four committees held meetings earlier this month.  You can watch any of the previous committee meetings by going to the District website and clicking on the committee you would like to view.  You can also read APPS’ review of each meeting here.  Committee meeting dates can be found on the BOE’s calendar.  However, the Community Engagement committee is scheduled for September 26th at 5:00 p.m. and is not listed on the calendar as of this writing.  The parent advisory committee will be introduced and the meeting is open to topics that the public wishes to address.

Co-chair of the Student Achievement committee Angela McIver requested Christina Grant, Interim Director of the Charter School Office come to the table to give the District presentation on the Charter Renewals appearing on the agenda; Action Items (A.I.) 39 to 47.  Action Item 39 and 40 needed additional explanations. KIPP West Philadelphia Charter School, a charter renewal, was absorbing grades from KIPP West Philadelphia Preparatory Charter School. Preparatory was forfeiting its Charter so it could be absorbed by KIPP West Philadelphia Charter School.  It will then be one school with two locations; K-4 will be located at 5070 Parkside Avenue and 5-8 will be located at 5900 Baltimore Avenue.

Grant then listed the seven Mastery Schools that were on the agenda for renewal.  She offered no explanation about why it took years to get these renewals completed nor did she offer any SPR data on the schools’ academic performance.  I guess when you look at the achievement scores for all eight of these renewals you understand why Achievement SPR scores are not mentioned. Every single school was in the Intervene category with one school even receiving a 0%.  Yet all eight were unanimously approved with not one word from Board members about why failing schools are unanimously approved for renewal without questions or discussions.

A.I. 39 KIPP – West Philadelphia Preparatory Charter School renewal for grades 5-8 Achievement Intervene at 8%

A.I. 41 Mastery Pastorius – SPR Achievement Intervene at 8%

A.I. 42 Mastery Hardy Williams – SPR Achievement Intervene for K-8 at 18% and the High School’s Achievement SPR Intervene at 4%

A.I. 43 Mastery Cleveland – SPR Achievement Intervene at 12%

A.I. 44 Mastery Clymer – SPR Achievement Intervene at 17%

A.I. 45 Mastery Pickett – SPR Achievement Intervene at 3% for 6-8 and SPR Achievement Intervene at 7% for the high school

A.I. 46 Mastery Gratz – SPR Achievement Intervene at 9% for 7-8 and SPR Achievement Intervene at 0% for the high school

A.I. 47 Mastery Shoemaker – SPR Achievement Intervene at 16% for 7-8 and SPR Achievement Intervene at 5% for the high school

Four of these schools are Renaissance Charter schools which means they were public schools that were turned over to “experienced charter school operators” to turn the school around.  As per the District website, The Renaissance School Initiative is a key part of the School District’s ongoing work to ensure that all students have a great school close to where they live.  So why are Intervene achievement scores deemed acceptable in schools that were supposed to offer dramatic results?

Registered Speakers on Action Items (A.I.)

A student speaker from Meredith addressed the toxic building conditions in that school.  APPS members spoke on A.I. 35, Contract with Newsela for $1,595,000.50 and questioned this expenditure based on equity and spending priority issues.  In addition, APPS members spoke on the dismal academic records of the Charter Schools up for renewals.

Karel Kilimnik, APPS co-founder, raised questions about the District’s Comprehensive School Planning Review which will undertake a system wide look at school needs.  An outside agency hearkening from the West Coast will collect District dollars to conduct this review. Many areas of the city are plagued with longstanding overcrowding problems that have resulted in many schools left in a crisis mode trying to figure out where to put students.

The District has an abysmal track record of meaningful community engagement.  Too often, the result is top down decisions affecting schools and communities but leaving those very stakeholders shut out of the decision making.  Frustration, anger, and disenfranchisement usually follows. Kilimnik asked a number of questions and asked how the Board will answer the questions she raised.

Board member Chris McGinley volunteered to address Kilimnik’s concerns.  However, his response lacked an answer to Kilimnik’s questions. He stated that they hold committee meetings which entertains the public’s questions and comments.  He said they try to respond to as many of these issues as is possible at that moment. What he failed to acknowledge is that significant questions keep coming back and people walk away time and time again feeling like they have no answers.  So his justification is one more instance of the BOE not hearing the public.

It also points to a troubling use of the committee meetings.  It is beginning to feel like these meetings are being used in a manner that circumvents public discourse despite those 3 minutes to speak.  We have heard in Action Meetings that something was discussed in committee and that it doesn’t need further discussion at the Action Meeting??  Not all Board members are present at the committee meeting and certainly not all members of the public are present. Committee meetings should not be a shield from public discussion at the actual Action Meeting.

McGinley went on to defend the Board’s manner of operating as being open to the public and not behind closed doors or in secret.  However, Kilimnik did not suggest the Board operated in secret regarding meetings.  She stated accurately that the Charter School office negotiates with Charter School operators in secret. They do and he did not address that question.

Transcripts of APPS and others testimony is published  on the APPS website.  You can find the transcripts of this meeting’s testimony here.

Board Votes

The Board did its usual block vote on Action Items (A.I.) 1,2, 7 to 34, 36, 38, and 48.  These A.I. passed with three abstentions: Lee Huan A.I. 9, Chris McGinley and Joyce Wilkerson A.I. 28.  The remaining votes were unanimous Yes.

A.I. 3 & 4 passed with unanimous Yes votes

A.I. 6 Amendments to Contract with ACS Consultants for special education teachers resulted in Board discussion and questions directed at a District Staffer about why the need existed for these outside special education teachers.  Board members asked insightful questions about why an agency can find teachers but the SDP can’t. They questioned the disconnect that often exists between a “contract” teacher and the building they work in and they raised concerns about using this as a crutch for not robustly recruiting District full-time staff.  In the end it passed, 6 Yes; 2 No (McGinley and McIver voted No)

A.I. 35 – Contract with Newsela – a robust digital library of news articles – also resulted in Board discussion and questions for District Staffers and again Board members asked insightful questions.  There were concerns about equity of available technology and access, the need for paper to copy articles, how it will connect with the Scope and Sequence, as well as concerns about whether educators and/or principals even wanted this resource.

District staff answers on the other hand were not robust.  The staffers promised to help with paper if teachers needed it (really??).  They noted that “several teachers reached out to them to inquire about getting Newsela” (again really??).  They said they can monitor usage through School Net but didn’t explain. And they admitted no effort was made to determine if educators and principals wanted this resource.  The many educators in the auditorium clapped vigorously for the Board’s probing questions.

Board members voiced concern that their questions were not fully addressed so a motion was made to table this Item.  The vote to table did not pass; 6 No; 2 Yes (McColgan and McGinley were the 2 Yes votes). The Board then voted on A.I. 35 and it failed to pass; 5 No; 3 Yes votes (Huang, Walker, and Wilkerson were the Yes votes).  $1 million saved for another day.

A.I. 37, Tailwinds, LLC $80,000.  This Item to support a limited number of Frankford High students in securing a private pilot license was discussed and amended in committee to reflect $40,000 cap.  However, the Item still appeared with the incorrect cap so an amendment passed unanimously correcting the amount. There was discussion about the equity of so few students benefiting from this program but when the vote was taken A.I. 37 passed; 6 Yes, 2 No votes (Danzy and Fix Lopez voted No).

A.I. 39 to 47 – the 8 Charter School renewals – were each voted on separately but each Item passed Unanimously.  All Charter renewals and amendments seem to go unchallenged by this Board.

Advocate Speakers

Toxic Schools was the topic for at least six speakers, mostly from Meredith.  They gave crushing testimony about the toxic conditions in their school but in such an inclusive manner.  They advocated not just for their school but made a plea for systemic repairs across all District buildings.   A Meredith colleague was in the news this week due to contracting mesothelioma.  And this is the beginning sentence on the web page MesotheliomaGroup “Teachers are at risk of exposure to asbestos in old school buildings. Asbestos is a carcinogenic mineral that can cause mesothelioma, a rare cancer affecting the lining of the lungs, abdomen, and heart.”  

APPS continually questions District spending priorities and District disconnect with what is happening on the ground.  The District stonewalled on publicly addressing our toxic schools until shamed by the Inquirer series of articles Toxic City, Sick Schools.   

Student Voter Engagement was the topic of several speakers.  A banner of signatures supporting the advocates efforts was unfurled and the advocates continued to prod the District to improve in a bipartisan effort to educate, encourage, and support student voters in District policy, curriculum, and educator professional development. Although the advocates were appreciative of improvements already made, they want a robust policy in place for all schools.

A BOE First Year Report Card was delivered to the Board by Aileen Callaghan,  a member of the Our City Our School Coalition (OCOS).  This coalition was instrumental in the efforts to rid the District of State imposed control of our schools under the SRC.  OCOS is not resting until the BOE reflects the needs and priorities of the students, families, educators, and community members that love and support our public schools.  This report card contained suggestions on how to improve and addresses the need to willingly travel the road of building trust and relationships across the District. Many of the issues addressed in the Report Card were on display at this meeting.