Ears on the SRC: September 14, 2017

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by Diane Payne
September 24, 2017

Chair Joyce Wilkerson and Commissioners Farah Jimenez, Chris McGinley and Estelle Richman were present for the entire meeting.  Commissioner Green was absent for the first two hours; he arrived at 6:45 for a meeting that started at 4:30, without explanation, when there were four speakers left. Green was absent during the testimony of forty-two speakers,  Superintendent Hite’s remarks,  the Policy Committee report from Dr. McGinley, and the presentation from Student Services Director Karen Lynch on the school selection process. He did, however, vote on all of the resolutions.

Before the vote on resolutions, APPS’ Lisa Haver stood and approached the front table, asking Chair Wilkerson:  Can you please read the rules concerning Commissioners voting after missing most of the meeting?  How can Commissioner Green miss the entire proceeding, arrive at the conclusion of the meeting, and be allowed to vote?  Although those questions were addressed to the Chair,  Green asked Miles Shore, Interim Chief of the district’s Office of General Counsel, to cite the rules about when Commissioners can vote on resolutions.  Shore stated that since Green was present he was entitled to vote.  Shore did not cite any policy number when giving this opinion.

Green also missed most of the SRC Action Meetings on April 20 and May 1 of this year.  He did not hear the majority of the public speakers, the staff presentations or Superintendent Hite’s remarks–yet he still voted.  As Haver said, Green personifies the SRC’s disregard for the public they are entrusted to serve. Green missed most of the April 27 2017 and May 1 2017 meetings also.

APPS again calls on Chair Wilkerson to address this issue. (See timestamp 1:58:00 in this link.) If Green cannot serve in a responsible manner, he should resign.

Sixteen members of APPS were present for this meeting; fourteen testified.

[To view their testimony, please go to APPSphilly.net.]

Our City Our Schools: SRC Must Go

The Our Cities, Our Schools coalition (OCOS),  of which APPS is a member, has been  publicly advocating for a return of the governance of the School District of Philadelphia (SDP) to local control.  The SDP has been under the thumb of Harrisburg for the past 16 years.  [For a history of the state takeover, see Ken Derstine’s article “A History of the State Takeover of the Philadelphia School District.

OCOS has mounted a campaign to seek the SRC’s vote to abolish itself by December 2017.  After the SRC takes this vote, a 180-day time clock begins ticking before the PA Secretary of Education can add the final piece and sign off on this vote.  The district would then revert to the system in place before the state takeover,  a 9-member board appointed by the Mayor.  Timing is crucial, because if this vote doesn’t happen by December of this year, those 180 days will stretch into the next election cycle.  There is no guarantee of who may win the governor’s seat in the next election; that leaves Philadelphia with the prospect of  facing another hostile Republican governor–and no end in sight to state control.  Under the SRC, the democratic process of checks and balances is non-existent.  The SRC is accountable to NO ONE–least of all the voters and taxpayers of Philadelphia.

A diverse group of speakers crowded the room with a unified message: the SRC must vote to abolish itself.  Thirty-eight members of the public spoke and sang about this issue to the expressionless four commissioners present for public comment.  These speakers brought signs, clocks, timepieces and sound effects to underline the urgency of this effort.  Time is ticking for Philadelphia to regain its place in a democratic society and restore local control of its public schools.

Several speakers asked Chair Wilkerson directly to place a resolution to abolish on next month’s agenda, but the only answer (to the two speakers who got one) was:  We will not propose a resolution at this time; however, we are committed to discussing this issue.  (This was actually a step up from last month, when Acting Chair Jimenez would not address the public at all when asked the same question.)

Many speakers called on Mayor Kenney and Council President Clarke to assume leadership roles in this effort and stop sitting on the sidelines.  The voters of this city voted 120,289 to 4,127 in a 2015 non-binding ballot referendum to abolish the SRC.

Please go to ourcityourschools.com to sign a petition to abolish the SRC!

Will School Libraries Disappear During Hite’s Regime? 

Despite extensive research that supports the academic benefits of a well-functioning school library staffed with a certified school librarian, Philadelphia’s school libraries are on the verge of extinction, with only five remaining. APPS members present at the September 2017 meeting of the Philadelphia Education Fund, where Commissioner Jimenez serves as President and CEO,  heard Dr. Hite say he was excited to be developing plans for  “quiet spaces with books” in some schools and that he was looking into staffing some of them and developing some as “cafes”.  When APPS member Diane Payne challenged Hite on the issue, he told her after she concluded her testimony that she got her facts wrong–that he also said libraries would be turned into research labs and “makerspaces”. We believe that each school should have a fully-stocked library staffed by a certified school librarian. We see no benefit from closing libraries and turning them into other things–including things with more technology, where students sit in front of a computer rather than interact with a teacher and fellow students. The research is clear: students benefit from school libraries–which is why students in all other districts have them.

(What is a “makerspace”, you ask?  Here is a partial explanation.

APPS member Karel Kilimnik reiterated the benefits of school libraries.  Dr. Hite responded that school libraries were being phased out when he came to the district. Actually, there were forty-three librarians when Dr. Hite became superintendent; we now have 1/7  that number.  As Lisa Haver said to Dr. Hite at the PEF meeting, we wonder why he would want part of his legacy as Superintendent to be the final disappearance of school libraries from the district.

If You Blinked, You Missed the Votes

It took less than one minute for the SRC to vote to approve, unanimously, all thirty-four resolutions on the agenda.  As usual, they were voted on in just three block votes and there was no deliberation on any of them.   Commissioner McGinley and Chair Wilkerson abstained from two votes because of their employment with Temple University.  The SRC approved a contract for Temple to conduct community engagement during the Priority schools process. (See “More Churn, Instability for Schools, Students” below.)

SRC Commissioner Hosts Event at Union League

On Friday, September 8, Farah Jimenez, in her role as President and CEO of the Philadelphia Education Fund, sponsored a panel discussion at the Union League, an exclusive club which for most of its history allowed only wealthy white men to enter. Author David Osborne was invited to speak about his recently published book on “reimagining” education.  Dr. Hite attended as one of four panel members. Although not an educator, Osborne is a proponent of privatization of public schools and for charter expansion of “well-monitored” charters. (As APPS members pointed out in their SRC testimony, Philadelphia does not have well-monitored charters.)  PEF’s goals as stated on its website include:

Establish and coordinate high-quality educator development and support for Philadelphia public schools. 

When Jimenez accepted this position at PEF, APPS immediately questioned the obvious  conflict of interest.  Jimenez has already had to recuse herself from votes on Mastery and other charters because of her husband’s employment in a law firm which represents them.  Now she also must recuse due to her own employment. Many crucial votes, including charter renewals, have had to be tabled because of her inability to vote. Jimenez cannot function as an SRC member. She should step down.

Educators in Philadelphia are still reeling from the comments made by Osborne during and after the event. His book applauds what he alleges is the success of massive charter takeovers found in three districts: New Orleans, Washington D.C., and Denver.  In an interview after the event, Osborne compared the district’s union members to one of the most infamous oppressors of African-American people in America.  He stated that union members were doing the same thing George Wallace did, “standing in the schoolhouse door, denying minority children a quality education.”  He likened the men and women Jimenez is entrusted to oversee to a racist icon.  There was no apology from Jimenez.  Nor has Dr. Hite disavowed Osborne’s statement.

One public school parent and member of her school’s SAC, Alison McDowell, was denied admission even though she had pre-registered and was holding a ticket issued by PEF. She tried to convey her message by writing in chalk on the public sidewalk outside prior to the event. Union League staff claimed that she was not dressed appropriately, but there was no dress code mentioned in the invitation sent out by PEF. After staff tried to rip the ticket out of her hand, McDowell sat on the floor and demanded that Jimenez come to the lobby and honor her ticket.  Jimenez did come down, but she simply looked at McDowell, then turned around without saying a word.

Just as she ignored speakers at last month’s SRC meeting, she ignored this public school parent as well.  Alison McDowell was armed with a plethora of information to confront the misinformation being presented at this event.  That is why she was barred.  For some important information about “school reform” go to Wrench in the Gears, Alison’s blog.

More Ethics Questions

The issue of Commissioner Green’s chronic absences was not the only ethics question raised.   Lisa Haver questioned the commission on the ethics of a recent SRC commissioner, Sylvia Simms, who championed charter school expansion as a Commissioner and accepted a job (at an undisclosed salary) with the pro-charter organization Education Opportunities for Families.  Haver testified that thisrepresents a serious betrayal of the people this body is supposed to represent. It raises serious ethical questions. I would say obvious questions, but ethical questions don’t seem to be obvious in this room.”

More Churn, Instability for Schools and Students

Month after month we report the same information: Charter schools that are more than a year past their official renewal  dates have just disappeared from public view, with nothing written about it in the press. These schools are therefore given an extension by default, even when the SRC or Charter School office had raised questions about the viability of the renewal. Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Uri Monson has repeatedly cited Charter School costs as the single biggest item in the SDP budget.  These charters are lacking in performance–but not lacking in SRC support.  Why?

Meanwhile, six more public schools have been targeted for “turnaround” by Dr.  Hite administration in yet another year of “prioritizing” schools.  The main tool of the Hite turnaround scheme (whether it be Priority, Transformation, Redesign,  Internal Turnaround, Promise or Renaissance) is forcing out teachers and principals.  Hite pays a lot of lip service to our “dedicated teachers” while blaming them (without actually saying it) for low test scores. This means inflicting more anxiety and fear on the administrators, staff, students, and parents of these school communities as they face an unknown future.  The continual churn of principals and staff in and out of schools that the district inflicts each year is traumatic for students, who thrive when they have a relationship with their teachers. The stability of the schools suffer when teachers and administrators cannot maintain professional relationships in which they share knowledge of students’ progress and the schools’ families over time.  Add that to the fear felt by other schools in non-affluent neighborhoods who may be on Hite’s chopping block in the next four years when he carries out his threat of more school closures. Public schools are disrupted, labeled, thrown into chaos and closed–while Aspira Stetson and Olney and Universal Vare and Audenried are given a free pass. The SRC protects failing charters while turning their backs on the public schools who struggle everyday to function with inadequate funding and resources.

Next SRC Meeting

The next SRC meeting will be held on Thursday, October, 19th at 4:30 p.m. in the second floor auditorium at 440 N. Broad Street.  To register to speak,  you must call by 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, October 18th.  Student speakers are placed first on the speakers list.