Eyes on the Board of Education: August 20, 2020

by Karel Kilimnik

Reading Board of Education agendas invoke feelings similar to that of Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day: will we be trapped in this cycle forever?  Is there a future in which we don’t see the same items for consulting contracts, outsourcing of professional services, and growing the legal firm slush fund? We have seen little independence from the Board, which conducts business in the same way the SRC did–rubber-stamping administrative requests. 

The COVID pandemic provides an opportunity to right the priorities for the district by involving stakeholders in decision making; eliminating outsourcing and rebuilding infrastructure; using the already existing resources of educators instead of hiring outside consultants who return like cicadas; supporting Black Lives Matter and  Student Voter Registration.

We need actions to back the speeches. We need equity to guide funding so that it gets to schools with the highest needs and fewest resources. The August Agenda Items in particular keep us in that Groundhog Day cycle of privatization, outsourcing, and sending precious dollars to out-of-town consultants: Item 1, $700, 000.00 Contract with KJR Consulting for Central Office Professional Development, Anti-racism training and Change Management Support;  Item 24, Contract with the Urban Affairs Coalition at Philadelphia High School for Girls, giving non-profits the power to decide on how project money is spent at a public high school; Item 10, Ratification of Supplemental Outside Counsel, growing stable of outside law firms; Item 13, Contract with Various Vendors for Furniture and Equipment at PSLAMS, a new public school configuration brought about by the private funding of the Philadelphia School Partnership. Extensive anti-Racist training had been conducted by District educators who were told that they must do so only as volunteers; the District would not pay them–but have found $700,000 to pay KJR.  District Chief of Staff Naomi Wyatt told the Board at last week’s Joint Committee meeting that the Hite administration’s central office staff had a good relationship with KJR, who had been the recipient of previous District contracts. Wyatt did not explain what “Change Management Support” is.  The criteria for choosing leaders of anti-racism should be who can provide the best education on the subject, not being on good terms with a consulting company that has no experience in the subject. 

Hite’s July 9 letter to District staff outlines objectives for the new SDP Equity Coalition  including the following core objectives:

  • Providing the framework and structure for our district’s definition of equity in mission and vision.
  • Creating an equity audit and subsequent action plan that highlights our short and long term commitments. 
  • Developing and refining policy for our district and community partners through an equity lens.

The letter does not specify who will be selecting participants and how the public will be updated on the Committee’s findings and recommendations.  Will the Committee’s meeting minutes be posted on the District Website?

The Philadelphia School Partnership continues to expand its influence behind the scenes, this month with a continuation of its contract with Girls High to support their “Keys to My Success” project approved at the June 25 Action meeting.   APPS again notes the pattern of PSP  “philanthropy” followed by mandates and contracts. The development of the new Powelton Science Leadership Academy Middle School has been directed and funded by PSP in cooperation with Drexel University. Drexel President and former PSP Board Member John Frye was instrumental in developing the Penn Alexander School during his tenure at the University of Pennsylvania.  Penn Alexander, with its increased funding and resources from Penn, has become highly coveted for residents of West Philadelphia.  Some have pointed to its role in the gentrification in University City, where real estate values have risen and low-income residents driven out as parents seek to relocate into the school’s catchment area. Is this Drexel President John Frye’s vision for PSLAMS?

As the public demands true equity across the district, education advocates have renewed their demands that large non-profits including Penn, Drexel, Temple, and Jefferson pay their fair share. Those institutions benefit from local institutions in many ways but do not pay real estate taxes, and they continue to justify their failure to pay PILOTS (Payments In Lieu of Taxes).  If PILOTS were paid more schools would have access to resources. A  recent Philadelphia Inquirer editorial stated that  “there’s a new urgency behind questions such as whether Penn, Drexel, and Jefferson Universities, as well as other big property-owning nonprofits in Philly, need to do more, and do better.”

What if...the Board took leadership in creating a vision for the District focused on rebuilding infrastructure and eliminating outsourcing? 

What if...the Board ensured genuine parent and community engagement by including them in decision-making, not just bringing them in as an audience after the fact? 

September 17 Board of Education Action Meeting, 5 PM. Check the Board website for updated information on the meeting format (virtual or in person) as well as how to sign up to testify and how testimony will be given.

Action Items of Note

[Find full List of Action Items here]

Does District Need Direction from a Chief Enthusiasm Officer?

Action Item 1: Contract with KJR Consulting for Professional Development ($700,000)

Description:The purpose of this action item is to provide central office staff continued professional development to improve management and organizational skills.  Proficiency in these skills are critical for District staff to manage staff and resources and to coordinate activities across a complex organization in order to achieve Anchor goals.  In addition, their services will include a training series focused on developing antiracist leaders at the District and change management support for senior leaders as they adjust/adapt their teams to new constraints and demands.  The contract is for an amount not to exceed $700,000 and is split into three categories as outlined below.

Antiracist Leadership Series – $150,000

The District’s Executive Team, which consists of 110 top district administrators, will go through a series of large group briefings (5 total) and smaller group training sessions (up to 20) throughout the SY20-21 academic year that will build awareness, urgency, and capacity for antiracist leadership in the District.  This series will be aligned with and augment the work of the SDP Equity Coalition that will be promoting antiracism across the entire District.

Central Office Professional Development – $350,000

This portion of the contract will continue to provide all central office staff (approximately 700 employees) with access to training sessions on a range of topics designed to improve employee productivity including project management, supervisory skills, customer service essentials, and MS Office/Google Suite.  A mix of full-day and half-day sessions (up to 68) are proposed with up to 30 attendees in each.  Specific sessions will be run based on District need and attendee interest.  KJR has provided these training offerings to central office staff for the past 2 years and they have been well-attended and received high marks from attendees.

Change Management Support – $200,000

This portion of the contract provides consulting, coaching, and facilitation services to Chiefs and department leaders as they implement organizational and process changes to adapt to changing conditions (e.g., COVID-19 effects), improvement recommendations (e.g., curriculum audit), and performance expectations (e.g., Board goals).  In the previous year, KJR has provided change management support to the Chief of Academic Supports and her team which we hope to continue into this academic year.  This portion of the contract also allows similar change management support to be provided to other Chiefs, if necessary.

APPS Analysis:  This is not the first time KJR has sidled up to the District funding trough. In  March 2018, the SRC approved KJR as one of three recipients of $555,000 in contracts. 

Later that month they entered into a revised contract that netted them $ 1,275,000 in the area of Special Education, a field in which they did not advertise any experience.  While Americans organize and petition lawmakers for an end to systemic racism, KJR hears the cries for justice as a business opportunity. Instead of documenting actual work in any field or subject, the KJR website pontificates that “Running your organization can be daunting and sometimes you could use a helping hand to overcome a challenge, implement change, or get a new project or initiative off the ground”.  Staff include “Principal and Chief Enthusiasm Officer”, “Chief Solutions Savant”, and “Optimization Strategist”.  KJR’s clients include Teach For America, Coca Cola, and Papa John’s.  KJR advertises no experience in anti-racism leadership training.  The company’s promise to “start by assessing your business …”  is a telling one here. Last month, one Board member referred to District stakeholders as “customers”.  Viewing education as a business is the trademark of corporate education disruptors who have propagated the view of education as a commodity, not a basic human right. KJR promises help with “Achieving Equity” , “Diversity and Inclusion”, and “Building Trust, Credibility & Respect in the Workplace”. The ongoing level of distrust in the District has been widely acknowledged and documented. Paying a consulting firm to spout jargon is not a solution to that.  The Board can continue to have District educators provide this training, as the Racial Justice Organizing (RJOC) has for almost two years–free of charge. The RJOC website provides details of their knowledge and experience in this area. While KJR promises “You provide the content, we provide the process”, RJO actually provides both. 

Philadelphia educators and organizations have been working to advance racial justice for years, developing curriculum, connecting resources, and leading professional development. The District does not need a cheerleader or a Chief Enthusiasm Officer. We need experienced, caring, competent educators who know our students and understand their challenges. As former board member Dr. Chis McGinley told the Board earlier this year,  “Experience matters”. 

How Many Lawyers Does the District Need?

Action Item10: Ratification of Approval of Supplemental Outside Counsel List

Description: The Office of General Counsel works cooperatively with approved outside counsel with respect to negotiating reasonable hourly rates; developing guidelines and strategies to represent the School District in administrative proceedings, civil litigation, and appeals, and other matters as issues arise; managing and overseeing work product; assisting in discovering information and documents needed to pursue, defend, and resolve legal matters; negotiation and drafting of legal instruments and agreements; and investigations. The Office of General Counsel has determined that the retention of these additional identified firms is in the best interests of the School District to fill two needs: (1) additional expertise and availability, and (2) more firms offering rates advantageous to the School District. All approved firms are paid out of the total aggregate amount previously approved by the Board of Education, so no additional compensation is requested.

APPS Analysis:  Like the swallows to Capistrano, outside legal firms seem to migrate annually–into the District budget’s list of vendors.  Last June the Board allotted $4.25 million per year for the next three years for 33 Philadelphia law firms, continuing the SRC’s practice of maintaining a fund with little public oversight. There are over 20 attorneys in the District’s Office of General Counsel. Where is the justification for spending precious dollars on outside counsel? As we noted in our June 2019 edition of Eyes, “Every other expenditure is listed as a specific Item; e. g., paying a roofing company an agreed upon amount to put a roof on a school building. This method does not provide any incentive for the legal firm to settle a case in a timely and less expensive manner. We saw this firsthand when the District, represented by a high-priced firm, took two years to settle our Sunshine Act Complaint in 2015. Granted that there may be no way to predict the outcome of a case, but creating a bottomless fund and adding more law firms to the list leaves little room for accountability.”  We need a forensic audit of District spending, overseen by a Board that breaks with the SRC’s legacy of automatically approving District allotment requests. 

New Furniture in a New School Building

Action Item 13: Contract with Various Vendors-Furniture and Equipment for the new PSLAMS School ($1,400,000)

Description: The approved Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) for FY21 includes funding for the purchase of new furniture for the new Powel Elementary and Science Leadership Academy Middle School (PSLAMS). The new school is a joint venture between the School District of Philadelphia and Drexel University. It will house two educational programs, Science Leadership Academy Leadership Middle School, Grades 5-8, and Powel Elementary School, Grades K-4, co-located within one facility. The new school will provide 32 classrooms, special education and small group instruction spaces, music, art, makerspace and science labs. Each school will have their own administrative suite and will share the gym, cafeteria, and health services. The furniture and equipment will be procured from vendors who are a part of the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Cooperative Program. By utilizing the identified vendors, the District is guaranteed the lowest, most competitive price. Success will be measured by having the delivery of the furniture and equipment at the end of construction. The Office of Capital programs has established a deadline of December 31, 2020, to ensure all spaces are furnished in time for the school opening. This work is in support of the Operations Division goal to provide safe and healthy learning environments for all students. 

APPS Analysis: Drexel’s influence in the District, mostly in collaboration with PSP,  has grown steadily in recent years–from grants for Behavioral Health Issues to providing Professional Development to Reading Specialists (December 2018 Eyes) to working with PSP funding to create this new school. In 2014, Drexel bought 14 acres of prime real estate near Drexel University that had been the site of three District schools–University City High School, Charles Richard Drew Elementary, and the Walnut Center for early childhood education.  Over the past six years, Drexel and PSP have funded and developed the Science Leadership Academy Middle School  (SLAMS), originally housed on Drexel’s campus before relocating to its present location. Drexel and PSP planned to create a 5-8  middle school that would merge with Powel Elementary, a popular and overcrowded school in Powelton Village. In June 2019 the Board answered Frye’s pleas to reimburse $7 million to Drexel in order to cover some of the costs of the new building, even though the original plan did not call for the District to come up with this funding.  

As APPS member Deborah Grill testified in 2019,  “This deal only underscores the irony of the District now renting a school building from Drexel on the site of the school building that it sold to Drexel a few years ago.”

This Item furthers the irony, with the District shelling out over $1 million for new furniture  for a special-admissions school that has and will benefit from its relationship to both Drexel and PSP. (Last month, the Board approved a $2 million Item to build a new playground at Penn Alexander, made possible with funds raised by the PA school community.) District leadership and the Board talk about equity,  but this Item furthers the divide between schools that have outside resources and those who do not.  Other schools have to scramble for furniture or scavenge leftovers from shuttered schools. If large non-profits including Drexel paid their (PILOTS), the gap could begin to close.

PSP Girls High Project Gears Up

Action Item 24: Contract with Urban Affairs Coalition – Philadelphia High School for Girls ($30,000)

Description: As part of the “Keys to My Success” grant provided by the Philadelphia School Partnership, the Philadelphia High School for Girls will work with the Urban Affairs Coalition’s Inner Strength Foundation programs to develop and support students and staff.  The Inner Strength Foundation Teen Program focuses on school mindfulness and systems thinking programs to train teens to use life-long learning and mental wellness tools.  The teen program takes a trauma-informed lens and teaches social emotional tools as well as mindful awareness exercises to help students learn to focus, manage anger and anxiety, calm reactivity, and become interested in the way our brain’s development influences their experience now. Students will address the personal and social triggers that prevent learning and also learn all-important 21st century skills of systemic, contextual, and flexible thinking. 

 The Inner Strength Reducing Secondary Stress (IS-RSS) for Educators program aims to cultivate wholesome learning environments by providing stress reduction programs for teachers. The IS-RSS program is a scalable self-care and trauma reduction program where participants learn to identify signs of secondary stress, understand the physiological effect of secondary trauma on the brain and other health indicators, deconstruct culturally conditioned beliefs that are barriers to self-care practice, foundational mindfulness-based stress reduction tools, and build a personal self-care plan to incorporate self-care into the workday.  
APPS Analysis: Our comments here do not address the value of the resources and programming provided by the Inner Strength Foundation. We do question the decision-making involved in PSP’s “generous grant” for the Keys to My Success program. Instead of asking teachers, counselors, and parents what Girls High students need, PSP  implements its own plan based on testing and data collection. PSP, in a decision approved by its own private Board,  provides funding for the first three years of this five-year program; after that, funding must be  provided by the school’s Alumnae Association.  As we noted in the June Eyes,  “PSP’s funding and political support of school choice and privatization goes hand-in-hand with the expansion of standardized testing. Districts use test scores as weapons against public schools and their educators, most egregiously to close neighborhood schools. The profitable test-prep industry that determines winners and losers while profiting off of our students. Testing is not education. It simply decides who benefits based on their calculations.  As to shrinking enrollment, the encroachment of charter schools has undermined student populations throughout the District. “ Once again the District allows a private entity to set the course instead of relying on the expertise and experience of District teachers and counselors.