Ears on the SRC: August 17, 2017

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by Diane Payne
August 24, 2017

Commissioners Bill Green, Estelle Richman, Chris McGinley and Farah Jimenez were present; Chair Joyce Wilkerson was absent, so Jimenez acted as Interim Chair. Eight members of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools (APPS) were present; six testified in defense of public education. [See APPSPhilly.net to view their testimony and read their transcripts.]   APPS members continue to call out the waste of public tax dollars, the ongoing privatization of district resources and services, and the corporate policy agenda reflected in numerous resolutions that appear monthly on the SRC agenda.

Block Voting

The SRC voted on a total of 83 resolutions that set the priorities of the Hite administration. The commissioners spent money on district needs, much of that to private contractors. The 83 resolutions were voted on in only 4 blocks; one vote by Commissioners approved 42 resolutions. There was no discussion about the merits or worth of even a single resolution. All but two passed unanimously. This governmental body spends millions of tax dollars every month even though it is not accountable to the taxpayers of the city or the state. As a state-controlled body, it operates outside the system of checks and balances that is basic to our democratic system.

Our City Our Schools (OCOS): SRC Must Go

The OCOS coalition, of which APPS is a member, is publicly advocating for a return to local control of the School District of Philadelphia. In 2001, Harrisburg imposed the SRC governance structure on Philadelphia, stripping the city of local control of the city’s schools. The justification for this was the promise of increased financial stability and improved academics. Not only has the district achieved neither of these goals, it has been forced to operate under a “Doomsday Budget” as a result of budget cuts from Harrisburg. In the Trump/DeVos education agenda, public schools continue to find themselves under siege. Looming elections in 2020 create an uncertain future at both the state and city level.

The SRC can only be dissolved by our state legislature voting to abolish or the SRC commissioners voting at an SRC meeting to abolish. Should either of those things happen, it would still take another 180 days before the Secretary of Education (Pedro Rivera under Governor Tom Wolf) can approve the vote. That timeline pushes us to just before the next election. There is a sense of urgency around abolishing the SRC before this next election. Our children are living every day with the fallout from SRC spending priorities; our tax dollars are spent on questionable and unnecessary programs. Yet, out of 499 school districts in the Commonwealth, Philadelphia is the only school district with no form of local control! In the birthplace of American democracy, our voice is silenced.

Deaf Ears

Several speakers asked Interim Chair Farah Jimenez to add a resolution to the September meeting list to call for a vote to abolish the SRC. When the community member, Aileen Callaghan, asked Jimenez this question, there was an almost imperceptible, single, negative nod. No words, only a blank stare. Four more speakers asked this question and received only the blank stare. Although it is not unusual for the SRC Commissioners to not answer questions, it is disrespectful not to even acknowledge that a question was asked. Chair Jimenez did not utter a single sentence or word to speakers. This lack of even the most rudimentary professional decorum is just the latest manifestation of the SRC’s lack of respect for the public.

[Click here to add your name to a petition to abolish the SRC.]

Website Woes

Several months ago, the district announced that it would be creating a new website to replace the present one. In fact, SRC staff invited some APPS members to sit in on focus groups about it. Imagine our shock when we realized, after the debut of the new site on August 1, that much of the public information had disappeared. When those same APPS members spoke to the SRC staff, we were told that they were working on getting the information back by October. (Both the Director and Assistant Director of the Communications Office were on vacation.) The next day we were told the information would be restored by January 2018. At the SRC meeting, Dr. Hite, in his first public remarks about the website revision, said he hoped to have all information restored by Spring 2018! In her testimony, APPS co-founder Lisa Haver asked, “When will the information which was erased from the district’s website be restored?” In a rare move, Dr. Hite did acknowledge directly to Lisa and the public that the district was interested in restoring information and would appreciate feedback about what is missing, how users’ experiences can be improved and what is not working well.

Some of the missing information includes: Charter School renewal recommendation reports prior to this year’s SRC resolution lists, resolution summaries, presentations and minutes prior to July, 2016; information about individual district schools; general information about some charter schools. Several bio’s of leadership team members are also missing.

On the old website, the date for the next SRC meeting was clearly seen on the home page. You now have to click twice before you see the date of the next meeting, and it is not clear that the “register to speak” click is where you will find that information.

CFO Uri Monson has said repeatedly that charters represent the largest single district expense. Parents should be able to research charter information without confusion. Any charter school’s performance over the life of the charter should be public information available and accessible to the public.

SRC actions are also a matter of public record. The public should be able to easily research prior SRC actions for all 16 years it has been in existence.

[If you have discovered problems or find areas not user-friendly, we suggest you contact Superintendent Hite at hite@philasd.org and register your concern. The SRC is a governmental body and as such has a duty to keep public information available to the public.]

Parent (Pseudo) Engagement

On August 16th, Eric Becoates, Assistant Superintendent for the district’s Turnaround Network, held a meeting at Strawberry Mansion High School, nominally to speak to the community about the district’s intention to place a program for students with behavior problems in the school.

Not much real information was forthcoming from Becoates. Lisa Haver, who attended the meeting at the request of community members, explained that what the district seemed to be proposing was a co-location program in which the for-profit Camelot company would run a program in the building. The Camelot program would be an outsourced one with a private company, so the principal would have no authority over the program or its employees. The students would not be Strawberry Mansion students and could conceivably be brough in from other parts of the city. Because Becoates was vague in his responses to parent questions, Haver reminded Becoates that the SRC had voted to approve this program as part of a $145 million resolution for “alternative” education. Haver asked several times whether the district had made a decision on this location, since school starts in less than two weeks. Becoates would not answer. He referred several times to a meeting “next Monday” (August 22), but said just before the meeting adjourned that he wasn’t sure there would be a meeting. In her testimony, Haver asked Dr. Hite and the SRC, “Will the Camelot Excel program be operating in the Strawberry Mansion HS building?” No answer. One other speaker was Linda Cliatt Wayman, former Strawberry Mansion principal (she did not attend the meeting at the school), who thanked the district for deciding not to place Camelot at the school. Neither Hite nor any Commissioner would confirm or deny her statement. Apparently, Dr. Hite and the SRC believe that the parents, students, educators, and community members at Strawberry Mansion have no right to know what will be happening at their school and in their community.

Charter School Charade

Month after month, APPS reports the same disconcerting story. Poorly performing charter schools that have been up for renewal for over a year without a vote for or against simply disappear off the public radar. How can charter school expenditures be the single biggest drain on taxpayers while substandard charters are funded by the SRC well past their 5-year term? Two Aspira charters and two Universal charters were recommended for non-renewal by the SRC’s Charter School Office in April 2016; the SRC tabled those resolutions, and they have not come up for a vote since. On Thursday, Lisa Haver asked the SRC, “When will the SRC vote on the charter renewals for Aspira Olney and Stetson, Universal Vare and Audenried—all of which were recommended for non-renewal by the Charter School Office but postponed since April 2016?” Once again, no answer or even acknowledgement. Eighty-three resolutions on seventy-five pages but once again nothing on these four schools which have been left in a charter limbo without explanation or justification from this governing body.

Cambridge Is Baaack

With the threat of fifteen or more public school closures over the next five years, and the continual “turnarounds”–Transformation, Innovation, Redesign, Promise/ Renaissance Academy, or whatever this year’s model will be called–instability and chaos always loom on the horizon for district families and educators. The Hite administration attempts to justify these overhauls by hiring outside companies to conduct “school quality reviews”.

Last fall, the “cash-strapped” district paid the British-based Cambridge Education $200,000 to conduct studies, including interviews with parents and students, at the 11 schools placed in the new “Priority Schools” category.   APPS members attended many of the meetings Cambridge scheduled at these schools; we did our own analysis of Cambridge’s quality reviews. Notably missing from these reports was actual data. APPS members told the SRC last Spring that it should get its money back from Cambridge.

In June, the SRC voted to not approve another contract with Cambridge, and for once it seemed the SRC might make an informed decision. Not so fast. Cambridge was back with its hand out for another $100,000 contract (few details given for what) in August with Resolution A-8, which passed 3-1, McGinley being the only No vote. Money continues to pour down the drain on wasteful and questionable expenses. Which schools will fall victim to the overhauls recommended by the poorly designed and executed Cambridge reports?

Another discrepancy with the Resolutions was the amount of the Cambridge (A-8) contract. It was listed as $100,000 on the Resolution List. On the Summary List it carried both sums. $150,000 and $100,000.  So how much did they actually suck up?

Next SRC Meeting

Next scheduled SRC meeting: September 14th, 4:30 p.m. on the 2nd floor of the School Administration Building located at 440 N. Broad Street. To sign up to speak for exactly 3 minutes, call 215-400-4180 by 4:30 on the Wednesday preceding the meeting.