by Diane Payne
June 24, 2017
Four of the five commissioners were present for the entire meeting. Once again, Commissioner Bill Green was absent without explanation for most of the meeting, appearing near the end of the public speakers. He arrived at 8 PM for a meeting that began at 4:30. The fact that he missed all of the staff presentations, including those on charter renewal and amendments, did not stop him from voting on all resolutions. This same kind of unexplained absence occurred at the meetings of April 27th and May 1st when he again missed most of the meeting arriving in time to vote on resolutions.
The SRC by-laws do not specify the consequences of a commissioner missing most of an Action Meeting, then voting on resolutions. SRC Policy 006.1 states:
To attend a SRC meeting through electronic communications, a Commissioner shall comply with the following:
a. Submit such request to the SRC Chairperson or designee at least three (3) days prior to the meeting.
b. Ensure that the remote location is quiet and free from background noise and interruptions.
c. Participate in the entire SRC meeting
The question that must be addressed by Chair Wilkerson: should a commissioner who misses most of the meeting, who has little knowledge of the issues on the table, be permitted to vote?
Defenders of Public Education
APPS members held a Requiem for Shuttered Schools at 440 before the SRC meeting. Malcolm Kenyatta spoke on behalf of State Rep. Curtis Thomas, who fought to save William Penn High School and Harrison Elementary. Members of Parents United for Public Education, Our City Our Schools, Save Smith School and a number of other community groups spoke against Hite’s plan to close three neighborhood schools each year for the next five years.
At the SRC meeting, in addition to ten APPS members, fourteen speakers including students, parents, district staff and community members from the Our City Our Schools Coalition (OCOS) called for the abolishment of the SRC in their testimonies. OCOS asked the SRC to commit to a timeline that would have them vote to abolish that body by Fall 2017. After a vote to abolish, it will take another 180 days before the PA Secretary of Education can approve this measure. There is a sense of urgency around this demand in light of the latest national election and the appointment of Betsy DeVos as head US Secretary of Education, in addition to fears of what the outcome of the next PA gubernatorial election might bring. Philadelphia is the only one of the state’s 499 districts that has imposed state control and which disenfranchises voters from choosing an elected school board. We have had 16 years of SRC governance with nothing to show for it except a loss of democratic voice and services to our children.
SRC’s Willful, Continuous Violations of the Letter and Spirit of the Sunshine Act
In a more than four hour meeting dozens of speakers spoke about the need for the SRC to dissolve itself and return our schools to local control. This was followed by a half hour discussion among Commissioners and votes on 142 resolutions.
- Many of the resolutions were added in the days before the SRC meeting. The SRC provided only four copies of the Resolution Summary—for hundreds of attendees—in binders on a table in the rear of the auditorium. There was no way for people to follow what the SRC was voting on.
- One man, a Bilingual Counseling Assistant (BCA) in the district, called and registered to speak according to the district’s speaker policy. When he found his name NOT on the list, he and two other advocates informed at least two district personnel of the oversight. Even though it was the SRC staff’s mistake, he was not permitted to speak and was dismissed by Chair Wilkerson. APPS member Karel Kilimnik tried unsuccessfully to speak to Ms. Wilkerson about it. In fact, there were several people called up to speak during the meeting whose names did not appear on the list. No explanation of why the SRC was breaking its own rules again.
- Charter School Office Director Dawn Lynne Kacer gave an extended presentation on all of the charters being considered for renewal or granted amendments. There was no explanation of why she included information on West Philadelphia Achieve Charter as that school did not appear on the Resolution Summary. Another SRC mystery.
- Resolution IU-7 was posted on the summary as “updated June 9, 2017”. IU-7 did not appear until the afternoon of Monday, June 12, just three days before the meeting. How can a resolution never seen be “updated”?
- Sixteen resolutions were added in the days just prior to the meeting; fourteen were “updated” without explanation of how. This represents the most recent of the pattern of violations by the SRC against both the PA Sunshine Act and the settlement they agreed to in Common Pleas Court with APPS in 2016. It is just one of the many ways that the SRC keeps the public in the dark while it conducts public business.
Catapulting Students with Special Needs
One of the resolutions added at the last minute—on Monday June 12, three days before the meeting—was IU-7 IDEA: $36,073,350 Contract with Catapult Learning, Inc. – IU Alternative Special Education Program. The resolution included a built-in extension for a total of $54 million over five years. APPS first heard that the district may be planning a project that would result in the segregation of Special Needs students when contacted by lawyers from the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia (PILCOP) about a week before the meeting. We told them we had seen nothing, but that the SRC might post the resolution without the requisite two weeks notice. Unfortunately, we were right.
The Hite administration was proposing to open a new school (location and grade configuration yet to be determined) for 200 high-needs special education students and managed by a for-profit company with little or no experience in this field in September 2017—less than three months from now. The many questions posed in a letter sent from PILCOP and ELC (the Education Law Center) to the district went unanswered.
There was no staff presentation on this resolution at the meeting. Other than what appeared in the brief resolution, no information was given to the public. PILCOP attorney Lee Awbrey testified about their concerns and about those raised by parents of affected students. Parent Tonya Bah, whose special needs children attend district schools, and retired special education teacher and APPS member Ilene Poses both spoke in opposition. (Click the time stamps next to their name.)
Research shows that Catapult has no history of launching a special education school from scratch. As with most education entrepreneurs, Catapult CEO Jeffrey Cohen has degrees in business and law but none in education. Catapult offers intervention services for at-risk reading and math children and an alternative path to graduation for high school at-risk students (although in Volusia, Florida the program was dropped after only 10 students of 200 received a H.S. diploma). What is the Hite administration’s rationale for placing our most vulnerable students in a segregated school, in a location yet to be found, with startup and management by a company with no history of beginning such a school? What is the rush? This is a startling misuse of public funds. The SRC is poised to hand over tens of millions of dollars on another experiment on the backs of Philadelphia students and families.
Is the primary purpose of this resolution services to students or expanding Catapult’s market share in the district? Resolution B-8 approved a $1.2 million contract with the company to outsource nutrition education services. Catapult was one of several companies who shared a multi-million contract for services in August 2015
Part of Resolution IU-7, not alluded to by Dr. Hite, states that Catapult would use this facility to “…function as a dynamic best-practices training facility for School District teachers and staff, and as a model special education school for the Delaware Valley.” It appears that this resolution allows Catapult to polish its brand at the expense of our most vulnerable students.
Because of the intense pressure from PILCOP, ELC, and parents, the resolution was withdrawn, as noted by Chair Wilkerson at the beginning of the meeting. Dr. Hite, who came to the meeting late, said that he wanted to take a couple of weeks to reconsider the proposal. However, Wilkerson announced at the end of the meeting that the SRC would be meeting the following Tuesday to consider IU-7. It seemed strange 1) that the SRC would be reconvening to consider just one resolution and 2) that Dr. Hite’s two week period became two business days by the end of the meeting. Those of us who believed that the SRC was actually responding to community concerns in withdrawing the resolution found out at the subsequent meeting that we were wrong—it was just more bad faith and manipulation.
The SRC posted the notice of the June 20 meeting on its website with a note that the public could sign up to speak at the meeting. It was billed as a “resumption” of the business conducted at the June 15 meeting, as if the SRC could just call a 5-day recess. Several parents showed up on Tuesday ready to speak on their concerns about IU-7—only to find out that the resolution had been withdrawn just minutes just before the meeting. In its place was a new resolution to approve the district’s new contract with the PFT. SRC staff told those who wanted to speak that they could not speak on IU-7; they could only speak on the contract resolution. One parent of a special needs child, who walks with a cane, took time off from work to be there. The fact is that the Tuesday meeting was a Special Action Meeting called by the SRC, and as such, any person wishing to speak on any issue should have been allowed to sign up to speak. It seems clear that this meeting was called not to allow concerned parents to weigh in on a massive contract with a for-profit company. It was called to give the SRC a way to quickly approve the PFT contract without having to hear from the public about it. It was a shameful show of manipulation of the public who were led to believe that their voices counted.
Charter Business Expedited
Nine resolutions for charter renewals and amendments were posted. Noticeably absent was any mention of Aspira Stetson and Olney, Universal Vare and Audenried, Mastery Shoemaker, Clymer and Gratz. Most have serious financial, academic and managerial issues as reported by the Charter School Office. The SRC has, in violation of the PA charter law, continued to fund and operate these schools for over a year without formal renewal. The SRC did vote on these charter resolutions:
- SRC-8: SRC voted unanimously to accept the recommendation of the CSO to deny renewal to Eastern University Academy Charter.
- SRC-9: SRC voted unanimously to deny Franklin Town Charter’s request for amendment to expand.
- SRC-10: SRC voted unanimously to approve name change for General David S. Birney Charter.
- SRC-12: SRC voted unanimously to deny an amendment to Keystone Academy Charter School to increase enrollment.
- SRC-13: SRC voted 4-1 (Green dissenting) to deny amendment to Philadelphia Electric and Technology Charter for expansion.
- SRC -14: SRC voted unanimously to deny amendment for expansion to Tacony Academy Charter.
- SRC-15: SRC voted 3-2 (McGinley and Richman dissenting) to approve, with conditions, expansion of MAST Charter.
- SRC-16: SRC voted unanimously to approve adding space to Pan American Academy Charter for gym and music classes.
- SRC-17: SRC voted unanimously to accept CSO recommendation to revoke the charter of Khepera school. This school’s troubles have been widely reported in local news outlets.
Block Voting with Millions of Taxpayer Dollars
The SRC ramped up its “drive-by” method of block voting: there were only four official votes taken to pass 140 resolutions.
SRC-1 through 7 passed unanimously (SRC-4 was a first notice of Policy Committee recommendations; no action taken this month). A-10 had been withdrawn.
Wilkerson called for a vote on resolutions A1 through A-16. There was no consensus on every one; different commissioners had to specify which they were voting for or against. It became a “one from Column A, one from Column B” circus which those in attendance could not follow. The Chair should have called for separate votes on each one so that the people could see how the commissioners were voting.
Commissioner McGinley voted No, giving specific reasons why, on the following: A-2, Acceptance of $54,000 grant from Philadelphia School Partnership for Relay Graduate School of Education; A-3, $70,000 Grant from the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia for the National Principal Academy Fellowship; A-4, $112,500 Contract with Teach for America; A-13, $150,000 follow-up contract with Cambridge Education In fact, the Cambridge resolution was defeated by a 4-1 vote, Jimenez dissenting. The SRC passed Resolutions A-17 to A-61 unanimously.
The SRC voted unanimously to approve Resolutions A-62-85. Resolution A-71, which allotted another $8.5 million for outside law firms, passed 4-1, with Richman dissenting. Several speakers challenged Richman on this issue because she cited not wanting to spend more for lawyers as her justification for voting to approve Deep Roots charter last month.
The SRC passed Resolutions IU-1 to IU-6 unanimously.
The meeting of the Intermediate Unity was convened. IU-1 though IU-6 passed. IU-7 was postponed (see “Catapulting Students with Special Needs” above).
These block votes represent the spending of approximately $383 million dollars. Many of the resolutions represented in these blocks of votes furthered the privatization and outsourcing agenda of an administration led by Broad Superintendent Academy-trained Dr. Hite. [Please read these two important pieces by APPS member Ken Derstine on the true priorities of Broad-trained superintendents: Who is Eli Broad and why is he trying to destroy public education? and More About Broad in Philadelphia]
Next SRC Action Meeting: At the June 20 meeting, the SRC announced a special meeting for Thursday, July 6 at 11 AM. It is not clear whether the purpose of the meeting is to discuss IU-7 or whether IU-7 would be the only issue on the agenda. No reason was given for the change from the regular 4:30 PM time to 11 AM. But clearly, the SRC feels it owes the public little explanation on anything.