Ears on the SRC April 6th Policy Committee Meeting

Chris McGinley
SRC Commissioner  Chris McGinley

by Lynda Rubin and Lisa Haver
April 13, 2017

On March 16, the SRC voted to approve Resolution SRC-4 which created a policy committee that will review policies that affect students and staff. SRC-4 was a walk-on resolution, posted just prior to the meeting. The district’s press release states that “…[T]he creation of this committee builds upon the work the SRC has done to increase the transparency and accessibility as a large number of policies are developed and reviewed…[T]he policy committee will create a space to hear from the public…”

Only those who attended this Action Meeting knew of its creation (and those who read very small legal notices in the classified section of the newspaper).  SRC Joyce Wilkerson appointed Commissioner Chris McGinley chair of the committee and announced that the meeting would take place at 9 AM on April 6.

The agenda and the policies to be considered, which constituted over 75 pages, were posted Friday afternoon, March 31. There was no banner, as there always is for announcement of special meetings, on the district homepage. Anyone who knew about the meeting would also have to know exactly where to go, and when, to find the information about it.

The Committee met in a small conference room on the first floor of 440. Of the approximately 35-40 people in attendance, about 90% were district staff.   APPS members Lynda Rubin, Lisa Haver, Diane Payne and Barbara Dowdall — in addition to Councilwoman Helen Gym and her Chief of Staff Jennifer Kates—appeared to be the only members of the public. Councilwoman Gym, Lynda and Lisa were the only public speakers. (SRC staff had called both Lynda and Lisa the day before the meeting to say they would not be able to speak as they had called after the deadline. They told the staff person that they would be attending and expected to be allowed to testify. Chair McGinley did circulate a sign-up sheet just prior to the meeting.)

Councilwoman Gym spoke about Policy 248, Unlawful Harassment of Students, a policy she helped to write as part of a civil rights agreement with the US Department of Justice after the highly publicized incidents of severe bullying and harassment of Asian students at South Philadelphia High School in 2010.

The testimony of both Lynda and Lisa focused on the purpose and publicizing of this “public” meeting. Lisa spoke of the district’s decision not to post a banner on the website, the fact that for some unexplained reason speakers must sign up two days before the meeting rather than the usual one day, and the difficulty in finding the materials to be reviewed at the meeting. She pointed out the obvious: that when the SRC schedules a meeting at 9 AM on a weekday, neither those who are affected by the policies nor those who must implement them are able to attend.

Lynda noted that the reason for the possible changes in policies had not been made clear before the meeting.   There was no indication, in any of the policies posted online, of what changes were proposed or what might be deleted or added—nothing in bold print, nothing crossed out, nothing in italics. How, she asked, could any member of the public know how to weigh in on changes in policy—if they couldn’t see what those changes were? In fact, when that issue was raised with the SRC staff person on the phone about how anyone could know which was the old policy and which was the new, Lynda was told she could look at them side-by-side and compare.

Just after the meeting started, printed copies of the policies were brought to the room which did indicate proposed changes. Unfortunately, it was still impossible to compare old policy to new as the link to the previous policy online had been deactivated.

Lynda also questioned whether proposed changes in Policy 317 and the creation of Policy 317.1 on Conduct/Disciplinary Procedures and Educator Misconduct were made as a result of the SRC’s premature attempt to fire Willard Elementary teacher Marianne Kennedy. Marianne had been falsely accused by a DHS worker of abusing one of her students. Although her principal and several eyewitnesses sent statements to both DHS and Dr. Hite, the district moved to terminate her without conducting any investigation. She spent six months sitting in a room at 440, afraid that she would never see her students again. Only because of the efforts of her attorney, APPS member Rich Migliore, and the organized support of APPS members and Willard staff was Marianne able to avoid losing her job, career and reputation.

Changes in these two policies could have grave implications for all employees of the district if they shorten the path to termination. Lynda questioned whether the proposed changes in these policies were based on incorrect interpretations of the tenure provision of the PA School Code and the Child Protection Services Law.

Although the committee had been presented as one that would meet quarterly, there are  meetings posted for May and June. APPS will continue its efforts to have the SRC hold these meetings at a time when teachers, students and parents can attend. Is it a public meeting when the public can’t attend? Is this a violation of the spirit of the PA Sunshine Act?