By Lynda Rubin
July 11, 2016
This Philadelphia School Reform Commission meeting, which had been posted for months for June 30 at 5:30pm, was changed just a couple of weeks before to Friday, July 1 at 10:00 am. Chairwoman Marjorie Neff introduced attendees to a “special meeting” of the SRC, but it was actually the Action Meeting for July. Moving a meeting to the Friday morning of the July 4th week-end continues the SRC’s pattern of changing meetings to days and times more difficult for parents and public to attend. (Last month, the SRC voted to change its 5:30 meeting time to 4:30; no reason was given.) Feather Houston was absent but participated by phone.
Michael Davis, Chief of the Office of General Counsel, and Fernando Gallard, Director of Office of Public Relations, were honored for their service upon their retirements. Miles Shore was introduced as Interim Chief of the Office of General Counsel.
Mr. Shore reported that the Executive Committee had met the day before to discuss “personnel and employment matters” and a lawsuit on telecommunications and data technology. In a case which has made headlines, the district was sued by Security and Data Technology after former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman illegally severed its contract with the company and gave the $7.5 million no-bid contract to a company with whom she had personal ties. After spending over $1.5 million in attorney’s fees, the district lost the suit last month. Also see: Camera case could cost Philly schools $3.6 million, District says it will seek new trial | Philadelphia Inquirer – July 18, 2016
Superintendent Hite thanked Local #634 Cafeteria Workers for reaching a 2-year agreement. He announced that 99% of teacher vacancies have been filled, complimenting both Office of Talent staff and teachers for their work during the district’s “time of need.” He quickly reviewed other accomplishments for the past school year and said he was optimistic about the PA budget being passed by the end of day. Hite spoke against the passage of PA HB 530 “as currently written” because it would greatly inhibit the district’s dealings with charters. He urged everyone involved to Vote NO.
SRC Chair Neff acknowledged the presence of Councilwoman Helen Gym in the audience.
Chief Financial Officer Uri Munson spoke on two financial motions. The first, SRC-1 (Authorization of the Issuance and Sale of Tax and Revenue Anticipation Notes of the SDP Fiscal Year 2017, not to exceed $575,000), would allow the district to cover its daily cash flow throughout the year while waiting for tax revenue. All commissioners voted Yes. SRC-2 (Authorization to Reimburse the SD from the proceeds of Debt to be Issued by the SD for Capital Expenditures and Costs of Issuance Temporarily Funded from Revenues or Other Sources) was unanimously approved without discussion or explanation.
Charter School Action Proposals
This meeting was rife with confusion, if not legal irregularities, on how to vote and who could vote on a number of resolutions; missing documents and re-votes; a last-minute substitute charter proposal motion (though it was not posted on the district website, speakers who signed up at the meeting to speak on it came with prepared texts); and digression from SRC’s own speakers’ policy that benefited pro-charter advocates. All of these “gang-that-couldn’t-shoot-straight” proceedings presented an SRC which appeared to be lurching through motions to reach what increasingly appeared to be a pre-determined outcome.
The SRC had posted three charter school resolutions: 1) SRC-5, Belmont Charter Revised Application for Enrollment Expansion, or creation of a new high school; 2) SRC-6, Revocation of World Communication Charter School; 3) SRC-4, [resubmitted] Request for Enrollment Expansion from Harambee Institute of Science and Technology Charter.
Once again the SRC failed to take action on pending renewals of two Aspira charters and two Universal charters for which the Charter School Office had recommended nonrenewal on April 28th.
Belmont Charter High School
The posted resolution would allow Belmont Charter, an elementary/middle school, to expand to grade 12 over four years. Dawn Lynn Kacer and Megan Reamer, Executive Director and Program Manager, respectively, of the Charter School Office, were asked to clarify this matter. They reminded the commissioners that Belmont had submitted a revised application on May 26, 2016; the original application was denied during the previous charter application process earlier this year. Their Power Point presentation showed that there were no significant changes other than a different implementation date; thus, they were still recommending a No vote on expansion. Another change, not explained, was that the proposed high school would only be open to Belmont Charter elementary and middle school students but not those from the Strawberry Mansion catchment area, as the original request had stipulated. Commissioner Bill Green asked whether the school could solve its governance problems by having one board. Kacer noted that the school had a number of problems in addition to governance. [All CSO reports are available on the SDP website.]
The SRC went on to other matters. About fifteen minutes after the CSO clarification, Green announced that he had an “alternative resolution” which would grant Belmont’s request “with conditions”, and that the (6-page, single-spaced) resolution had been distributed to all SRC members and was being distributed to audience members. Neff immediately told those in attendance that three additional speakers could sign up to speak on this “walk-on” resolution. Two students with prepared pro-Belmont statements (on a resolution just introduced) were added. An aide to Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell later read a letter in favor of the revised resolution. No effort was made to ensure that both sides of the issue were represented. In fact, when APPS member Rich Migliore asked to sign up, he was told he was too late, even though the speakers portion of the meeting had not begun. (More on SRC violations of the Speakers Policy later.)
The SRC again went on to other matters. When Neff introduced the original Belmont resolution (SRC-5), none of the commissioners would second the motion—a rare occurrence—and the motion died. The alternative resolution (SRC 5-A, which was never read into the record, and of this writing, has not been posted on the SDP website) was brought up. Although Green appeared to have introduced the resolution, he then said he had “just received the draft, sitting here at the meeting.” Because Houston was not in the room, she asked for some explanation. Rather than table it until the SRC commissioners could read and deliberate upon it, Green asked Kacer to come up and give a summary. Kacer stated that the resolution would provide one of two “pathways” for Belmont: to allow the school, under its present charter, to expand to grade 12, or to grant a charter for a new high school. It was never explained how Kacer was able read and understand the 6-page resolution just minutes after it was distributed.
The SRC members then engaged in a 5-minute, off-mic conversation. Green moved to approve the revised resolution; he, Sylvia Simms and Farah Jimenez voted Yes, Neff and Houston voted to deny. Thus, the SRC voted once again to reject the recommendation of its Charter Office. In addition, this resolution assigns oversight of the new charter to SRC Chief of Staff Claire Landau, not the Charter School Office. Why the change?
World Communication Charter School (WCCS) Revocation
Ms. Kacer gave a report on recent site visits and evaluations of the school. In August 2015, the company was ordered to find a new charter operator or surrender its charter to the district. The district’s decision was based primarily on academic reasons, including graduation rate decline and lack of growth in three consecutive years. In addition, WCCS was found to be out of compliance in organization, viability and financial matters. WCCS found a new provider, but the new company pulled out not long after. However, WCCS has refused to surrender its charter. Also at issue was $170,390 overpayment by the SDP to WCCS due to enrollment, attendance irregularities, and special education files found to be out of compliance with federal regulations. The overpayment was recouped through withholding of per pupil payments. The SRC voted 4-1 to continue the process to revoke WCCS; Simms voted No.
Harambee Charter’s Continued Request for Expansion
Sandra Dungee-Glenn, former SRC Chairperson and current Harambee CEO, urged the SRC to approve resolution SRC-4, Request for Charter Amendment/Enrollment Expansion for Harambee Institute of Science and Technology Charter, which would allow the school to add fifty more seats in the next four years. She argued that the school’s new board has been making improvements regarding oversight, admission policies and the academic program over the past five years.
Sylvia Simms asked Kacer why the Charter School Office was recommending against giving Harambee ten more seats. Kacer responded that this ten was actually in addition to the previously requested forty seats. She stated that the CSO recommended against expansion due to concerns about Harambee’s lottery policy and lack of policy changes in that area. Kacer cited Harambee’s practice of requiring parents of applicants to show up on the school’s only open house day or be removed from the lottery. Kacer told Simms and the SRC: “We don’t make decisions based on promises of future performance, we make decisions based on outcomes [in the CSO]. So we would like to see the outcomes first, and they can certainly resubmit in the future.”
The SRC voted 3 (Neff, Houston, Jimenez) to 2 (Green, Simms) to deny Harambee’s request. For some reason, Neff called for a separate vote on adjudication, even though the adjudication request was part of SRC-4. Green told her that he did not see any adjudication resolution before him. More confusion ensued as commissioners searched for the paperwork.
Shore told Neff that it was available and could be retrieved from his office, but Neff decided to table the adjudication vote until August. The SRC moved on to other business.
About fifteen minutes later, another private, off-mic conversation took place among the commissioners. Neff declared a 15-minute recess “to take a look at one of the votes.” The SRC then voted to take a re-vote on the Harambee expansion resolution. The re-vote resulted in a 2 (Neff, Houston) to 2 (Green, Simms) tie, with Jimenez now recusing herself, which meant that the Harambee request had been brought back to life, to be considered later. Jimenez said, “I thank Commissioner Green for asking for adjudication because it informed me that I must recuse myself.” She did not, as required, state the reason she was recusing herself. Immediately after the meeting, an APPS member asked Miles Shore, the lawyer serving as Chief of the Office of General Counsel, whether this outcome allowed Harambee to add more seats. He replied that it was a legal matter and could not answer.
Questions on Recesses, Off-Mic Conversations, Re-Votes
There are a number of questions which come up here and which APPS intends to ask the SRC. Green’s pointing out that there was no adjudication attachment ultimately altered the vote to resurrect Harambee’s request. How was Green able to inform Jimenez that she needed to recuse herself? Since her recent appointment as Director of the Philadelphia Education Foundation, and because her husband’s legal firm represents several charter organizations, there seem to be more issues that Jimenez cannot vote on now than those she can. How was she not aware that she had to recuse on that vote? Why did the SRC choose to postpone the Harambee vote because one document was allegedly missing, but did not hesitate to vote on the Belmont revised resolution which had just been introduced, giving neither the SRC nor the public any time to review or question it? In fact, Feather Houston voted on it without looking at it at all.
Speakers List Irregularities
For the first time, the SRC did not read its Speakers Policy at the beginning of the meeting. The policy, which is recited to all who call to sign up, states that: no more than three persons on any side of any issue may speak, no more than three people from any school or organization may speak, speakers must sign up the day before, and no person can give another person’s testimony. At this meeting, however, those rules did not apply. There were six people listed to speak in favor of “Belmont Charter New Application”. One speaker who had not signed up was permitted to read the testimony of another who did not show up. (Four more were listed on the topic of “Lack of High Schools in West Philadelphia Area; they also spoke in favor of the Belmont application.) Three more speakers were allowed to sign up to speak on the “walk-on” resolution announced by Green; all supported Belmont. As noted before, no effort was made to see that both sides of the issue were represented.
This speaker policy, for reasons becoming more clear, has never been voted on and codified by the SRC; this means the SRC can change it at any time to suit its purposes. This gives lie once again to the SRC’s claims of transparency and openness.
APPS member Karel Kilimnik spoke about lack of accountability in recent district actions, and she cited discrepancies in statements made by Superintendent Hite. She asked for specific answers to six questions, including administration of summer school for countless numbers of students who did not have teachers for 2/3 or more of the school year, and she asked why Hite did not fire Source4Teachers. When she asked when her questions would be answered, and was told “later”. At the conclusion of the speakers’ portion, when Karel was not seated at the table and could not respond, Hite misrepresented many of her statements and called them “inaccurate”.
APPS member Ilene Poses sang an original song to the tune of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”, accompanied by many in the audience. (Her lyrics can be found here.) Ilene must have hit a note, as none of the commissioners stared at their phones or shuffled papers.
Our longstanding concerns about the openness and transparency of the SRC continue to grow. APPS members have attended SRC meetings for years, some since its first meeting in 2001. One criticism, which we and others have expressed over the years, has been the SRC’s lack of deliberation before voting on resolutions. The SRC, up until 2011, had both a Planning and an Action Meeting each month. The sole purpose of the Planning Meeting was to discuss the issues before voting on them. In the five years since dispensing with the Planning Meeting, we have seen very little deliberation on resolutions—until recently, when a number of charter renewals have come up. The amount of time the SRC has taken to converse (both on and off mic), tabulate votes before voting, recess in order to discuss votes, pay attention to detail and paperwork is unprecedented. Often questions seem scripted for a specific outcome, not for a better understanding of the issue. Not that we would call this “deliberation”, which means a serious weighing of the pros and cons of an issue. This can better be described as manipulation for public consumption. APPS will continue to ask hard questions of the SRC at its meetings and in other venues. We urge those who support public education in Philadelphia to do the same.
Lynda Rubin is a retired teacher and school counselor. She served in the School District of Philadelphia for 41 years.