Ears on the Board of Education: September 20, 2019

SB 7-9-18

by Diane Payne

Present

All nine members of the Board of Education (BOE) were present.  Eight members of APPS attended; five testified on behalf of public education.  Mayor Kenney came to welcome the students who were chosen as non-voting BOE representatives.  Of 54 applicants, two students were selected by a Board committee to serve as non-voting student representatives.  Julia Frank of Northeast High School and Alfredo Pratico of J.R. of Masterman High School were sworn in and seated.  They will alternate attendance at future meetings and will bring student voice to issues before the Board.

City Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds-Brown spoke to welcome the Board and to advise them that City Council was there to support and monitor district operations.  She noted three main areas of concern: school health and safety, suspensions, and African-American studies in the district’s high school curriculum. Also in attendance for part of the meeting was Councilwoman Helen Gym.   Gym has been outspoken against the Keystone Opportunity Zone (KOZ) and was the only No vote on the issue earlier that day in Council. The Board’s agenda included a vote on the current list of KOZ properties (more on this below).

The meeting began with a  lovely musical performance by Universal Language, a group of Franklin Learning Center students.  It was inspiring to hear the beautiful voice and stellar musical accompaniment of these student musicians.

Superintendent’s Remarks

Superintendent William Hite addressed the District’s upcoming open enrollment process.  The timeline has been moved, but the total number of days to complete the application process is the same.  Applications can be submitted from September 21st through November 2nd. There was a question about counselors having a difficult time due to the new timeline conflicting with Early Admission College Applications (EACA).  Dr. Hite said that only 5 high schools were possibly affected but research indicated really only one school would be affected. They were assured by that school there was no problem with conflicts impacting the EACAs.

Board Reverts to Business as Usual                                                    

The official BOE agenda included an extensive visual presentation on the Keystone Opportunity Zone (KOZ) properties from First Deputy Director Sylvie Gallier Howard and Senior Deputy Director Duane Bumb of the City’s Commerce Department.  (The power-point can be viewed here.)  The PA General Assembly created KOZs in 1998 as a program designed to spark development in blighted, vacant, or underutilized properties that might not otherwise be developed. This program abates a long list of both state and city taxes as the lure for investment and the projected economic improvement, particularly job creation. The hook for the School District is that by law these properties must make Payments In Lieu of Taxes (PILOTS) that amount to 110% of the 55% that would come to the District in real estate taxes.  These PILOTS are paid annually and are based on the previous year’s property assessment. By law, both City Council and the BOE must approve the list of properties submitted by the Commerce Department before the applications can proceed to the state.  (These properties can be viewed on the above mentioned powerpoint.)

The initial presentation was given by Ms. Gallier Howard at the BOE’s first Finance and Facilities Meeting on September 6th.  At that meeting, BOE President Joyce Wilkerson asked why properties in the “rapidly developing” areas of Fishtown, along the commercial corridors of Front Street and Frankford Avenue,  were included on the list. Howard stated that her office had instituted a “scorecard” to guard against the kind of concern Wilkerson expressed. The list of properties was being reviewed and such properties would be removed.  This presentation prompted APPS members to begin to scratch the surface of this program and this process as there was much cause for concern.

Councilwoman Helen Gym has frequently addressed the need to reform Philly’s tax incentives.  In June she told WHYY/Plan Philly:  “KOZs are not meant to be given out like candy. It doesn’t make sense to have all these properties in rapidly developing areas as Keystone Opportunity Zones. These are meant for the pioneers who chose to go into highly undeveloped areas and take a big risk.”

We have identified several issues, listed below,  that became apparent as the presentation went on and the vote was taken.

An amended list of properties was presented to City Council for a vote on September 13th.  However, the list was amended again, and returned for a full Council vote. Thus, there was no additional public hearing on the amended list.  The full Council voted on the bill the following week at its September 20th meeting. (The list was not available to the public prior to September 13th.) Thus, the Board had to vote on the same issue on the same day.

Why is something that will cost the city’s taxpayers so much, for so many years, on such a tight timeline?  Abating all city and state taxes for 10 years has cost the city tens of millions. There should be a more detailed cost/benefit analysis.

The list included over 100 parcels, but because some parcels were connected or in the same general vicinity, many were lumped together on the powerpoint.   According to Howard, the scorecard rates properties from 1 to 12. However, there was no public disclosure of who developed the scorecard or what criteria are included in the ratings categories.  Scores of 11 or 12 are the top of the list for development needs, 9 and 10 are somewhat less in need but still would benefit, and 8 is the cut off category. Category 8 would still bring a positive development opportunity.  Anything below 8 is excluded.

The City’s presentation to the Board failed to include the score for each of the properties it presented.  The city also failed to disclose who developed the scorecard and the criteria or categories on the scorecard.   

Twenty-one slides encompassing all the properties can be found on the powerpoint.  Five of those slides contain information about who owns the property. Sixteen slides did not contain information about who owns the property.

Why is information about who owns these sites not available to the public?  How can the public ascertain who is benefiting and who might be connected in other ways to these ventures?

In response to a question about the success of these development projects, Howard stated that every year the owners have to reapply and provide information to the state.  In addition, if properties are abated $50,000 or more they are required to “self-report” to the city the improvements gained through this development.

Perhaps “self-protect” would be a better term. Are taxpayers really being asked to accept that self-reporting provides a viable source of data?  Board members, before voting, should have gone to the KOZ state website to see whether there is data that supports these decades-long tax breaks.  Is Philly’s 25% poverty rate, or its place at the top of the 10 big city list for deep poverty, an indication that the people of Philadelphia have benefited?  

In response to questions from Board members about properties being sold and how properties come to be considered, Howard responded that a KOZ follows the property.  That is, if the property is sold, the new owner inherits the KOZ designation. She also noted that developers approach the Commerce Department and City Council members for consideration. In fact, Howard said, their office receives a “slew” of property requests; they are eventually whittled down by consideration of the location and score.

Again, this was not a transparent process. There was no public hearing in Council after the list was amended just before the BOE vote. If any of the Board members attended the Council hearings, they did not say so.  There was no indication that they read the objections raised by Councilwoman Helen Gym and PCCY Director Donna Cooper in Greg Windle’s Notebook article. Nor did APPS receive any response to either of the two letters we sent in the week before their vote. The rationalizations given by the six Board members who voted yes were, for the most part, admissions that they didn’t know enough about it–which should have been their reason to vote against it.

When it came time to vote on BOE-4, the Board Members engaged in more questions with the city presenters who returned to the front table.  One question came from BOE Vice-President Wayne Walker, who asked whether the following paragraph could be removed from the Action Item’s content:

WHEREAS, the Board of Education has determined that it is in the best interest of the City to implement the extensions referenced above and to provide for the aforementioned abatements, credits, exemptions, and deduction, now, and therefore, be it…

This was voted on as an amendment to the Action Item and approved unanimously be the Board.

This move was seen by some as the Board’s attempt at pre-absolution.  If this isn’t in the best interest of the city, why was it being considered at all by the Board?  Removing this language calls into question the Board’s commitment to the best interests of the city’s residents and taxpayers.

Many of those in attendance were shocked to hear Board Member Julia Danzy declare, just before casting her Yes vote, that “this is above my pay grade”.

If the nature of this Action Item is indeed too complicated and involved, then a vote to pass is not done in good faith. Ms. Danzy is one of nine people controlling a $3 billion budget. She has cast doubt that she is able to analyze financial information and make the appropriate decisions. Perhaps she should reassess her ability to serve on the Board.

Board Member Angela McIver expressed some of the same concerns she raised at the BOE Finance Committee meeting about the disadvantages of the KOZ program. She voted Yes “with reservations” and said that she “had faith” in the City’s intentions.

Ms. McIver could not have sent a worse message to the City and Harrisburg–that the Board will accept whatever other government officials want to sell them.  The mission of the Board is to represent its constituents, in particular the schoolchildren who attend the city’s public schools. If McIver felt that the City did not provide adequate information, then she should have voted No. Shouldn’t every Board Member bring to the table a healthy skepticism of the information they receive from any source promoting their agenda–whether that information is coming from City or state officials, district officials, or any other group coming before them to promote an initiative, program, or financial diversion?  No decision should be made based on “faith”–only on evidence and data.

McIver questioned whether the BOE had the legal authority to remove some properties.  Howard stated that yes, they could remove properties, but it was not something that had been done in the past.

APPS began researching the KOZ process weeks before this meeting.  We spoke to City officials and staff in both Council and Executive offices, and we researched the history of the KOZ program since its inception in 1998.  Early in our research, we discovered that parcels COULD be removed by the BOE at the time of the vote. Questions from many of the Board members who voted Yes indicated that they did little if any research before this meeting.  Why did Board Members whose duty is to carry out this important vote not search out this information before voting? Again, Board members could have voted to postpone and taken steps to remove certain parcels. Why didn’t they?

The Board chose to place on the agenda an extensive presentation (so extensive that Mr. Walker interrupted to ask how long it would take) from City officials.  The City officials had unlimited time for the presentation and were brought up again to answer questions just before the vote.

Was there no thought about having the other side of the issue presented in a comprehensive way–by Donna Cooper or Councilwoman Gym or any of a number of community activists who have written and testified on this matter?  Apparently not. Emily Dowdall, an expert witness from the Reinvestment Fund, (who was brought in to testify at the request of Ms. McIver) could have given an extensive an in-depth analysis of the effects of the abatements.

But she and others with opposing information and views were allotted only the usual 3 minutes.  Millions of tax dollars are going to be waived with these developments. The public had a right to hear about the the pitfalls of the KOZ program which have surfaced in the past 20 years–and heard an explanation of why the program hasn’t made a dent in the city’s poverty rate.

Several members of the public spoke eloquently and passionately about why the Board should vote No on this Action Item.  Donna Cooper reminded the Board that many Philadelphians had organized and fought to bring back local control and that they had a mandate to show the people of the city that they would NOT be conducting business as usual.

She told them that a vote to continue this tax giveaway would be a shirking of their duty to the people of Philadelphia and would send the wrong message to Harrisburg about their commitment to making decisions that benefit the people and not a handful of rich developers.

APPS co-founder Lisa Haver testified that  “ …APPS members have sent two letters to the members of the Board of Education urging a No vote on the Keystone Opportunity Zones. There seems to be no reason to grant significant tax breaks to wealthy developers except political ones.”

In those letters, APPS questioned how 2275 Bridge Street, the Frankford Arsenal location could be considered blighted, vacant, or underutilized.  This is a very politically connected area with politicians throwing their weight behind the Franklin Towne Charter School located in the Arsenal in spite of (or because of?) the school’s overly white population, shady business practices, lucrative management deals, and hefty administrative salaries.

There is no legitimate reason to give tax breaks to the owners and developers of these properties.

Action Item BOE-4 passed 6-2, with Chris McGinley and Mallory Fix Lopez dissenting. Lee Huang abstained due to possible conflicts around his employment (more on this later).   McGinley stated that without clear and sufficient information to inform this vote the only reasonable thing to do was vote No. Earlier McGinley called into question the need for abatements for a Manayunk property located on Venice Island in the middle of the Schuylkill River between Manayunk and Lower Merion, not far from to an expensive condo property in the same vicinity.

This vote was disappointing to those hoping for a true break with the practices of the SRC. This vote looked like a rubber stamp of an agenda item that was less than clear, hurried, controversial, disputed by citizens and policymakers alike, and shrouded in political connections.

Warning Sounded on Multiple Charter School Organizations

The Multiple Charter School Organization (MCSO) is a new item in the toolkit of those enabling the incursion of charter schools into the public school system. The MCSO was inserted into the latest amending of the PA Charter School Law (CSL) in 2017.   The legislation was snuck into the Omnibus Education Act of 2017, Act 55; in fact, it was added at the bottom as an addition to Section 17-1729 of the Charter School Law. (Its official citation is 24 P.S. § 17-17291-A.) As yet, there are NO MCSOs in the state, so the ramifications are unclear, but the fact is that the PA Charter School Law considered one of the worst charter school laws in the country was degraded even more.

APPS members Lynda Rubin and Deborah Grill  [read transcripts of their testimony here and here] and one advocate from Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY)  spoke against passage of the MaST application to make their two campuses an MCSO. In addition, Councilwoman Helen Gym wrote a letter to the Board expressing concern about passing any MCSO until a full and thorough review of the law and its consequences can be undertaken.

The concern of all the parties that presented to the Board was that this was opening the door for Charter School Districts within one district and possibly even spanning multiple school districts.  This move has to be seen in the context of the lack of charter oversight from the District and the resultant questions about transparency and accountability.  APPS is encouraging the BOE to vote No at the upcoming October 18th meeting.

The public can weigh in with their concerns about this issue (as well as any other issues of concern) by testifying at the BOE Student Achievement and Support Committee meeting and the full BOE meeting, or by submitting written comments to the BOE.  The Committee meets on the the 2nd Thursday of every month at 5 PM.   Keep an eye on the BOE page of the SDP website.

Fight Continues to Save Strawberry Mansion High School

Community members continue their fight to save Strawberry Mansion High School (SMHS).  Tanya Parker– community member, Mansion grad, and current SMHS School Advisory Council (SAC) president–has been an outspoken critic of the Hite administration’s lack of transparency and disrespect for Mansion supporters.  Changes were implemented, including the elimination of the entire 9th grade, without informing or listening to community members. Ms. Parker now finds herself banned from the building even though she is still the SAC president.  Is this the District’s idea of Community Engagement?

Retired District Principal Catherine Blunt asked several questions, which went unanswered,  about One Bright Ray, an outsourced program to serve overage students that has been moved into Mansion’s 5th floor.  APPS co-founder Karel Kilimnik also asked the Board to answer her questions about Mansion before the meeting adjourned; no answers were given. Hopefully the District will answer these questions and those that have been brought to Dr. Hite, to the SRC and now to the Board.

Voting and Spending

The Board voted separately on Action Items BOE-1 to BOE-4.

BOE-1 to affirm the new student representatives passed unanimously.

BOE-2 to grant a charter to MaST community Charter passed unanimously except for McColgan who recused herself.

BOE-3 Termination of Professional Employee passed unanimously.

BOE-4 on the KOZ properties passed 6-2 with McGinley and Fix Lopez dissenting and Huang abstaining (see our report above).

Then came the block votes.  Action Items A-1 to A-31 passed unanimously,  except for Item A-10 which Huang and Fix-Lopez recused due to conflicts of interest.

Action Items B-1 to B-16 passed unanimously. B-17 passed 7-2 with McGinley dissenting.

Item B-17 (K-12 contract) passed 8-1, McGinley dissenting.

It should be noted that SDP staff member Heather Marcus (counselor at Masterman High School) testified on the contracts with 12 Plus found in Action Items B-4 and B-17.  Board members were educated about the shortchanging of students by outsourcing to barely paid college grads the counselor services that should be provided by certified, trained counselors.  Once again, our students are on the receiving end of a cheap band aid instead of the services they deserve.

Board Member Lee Huang had to recuse himself on two votes and discussions due to conflicts with his employment.  One of those votes was that important KOZ Item of BOE-4. Mr. Huang has had to recuse himself many times during both the August and September Action Meetings and at the Finance and Facilities Committee, for which he serves as Co-Chair.

The Board approved the spending of $12,984,967 and the acceptance of $14,443,086 in grants and donations.

Next BOE Action Meeting: Thursday, October 18,  5 PM at 440 North Broad Street.  Check the SDP website for committee meeting dates and times.