Eyes on the Board of Education: June 27, 2019

by Lisa Haver and Deborah Grill

The June Tsunami

This month’s agenda lists 91 Action Items (including 3 Intermediate Unit Items) to be considered and voted on by the Board. Needless to say, it will not be possible for the Board to conduct any deliberation of most of them.  Every June, we could count on the end-of-school-year tsunami of resolutions from the SRC. We were hoping that the Board would discontinue this practice. Yes, there are Committee meetings, but only a handful of Items, if any, are discussed by those three Committees (Policy and Public Engagement committees meet only 4 times a year; no Items are considered by the Public Engagement Committee). This agenda includes Items of financial and educational concern to the entire District community.

This edition of Eyes looks at some of the most pressing issues under consideration this month.  Should the Board sell a public school building to satisfy the desires of a real estate developer and charter operator? Should the Board continue to shovel money into a fund for outside legal firms that allows for little accounting of exactly that money is spent?  Will expanding Drexel’s footprint in West Philadelphia benefit the community?

Find the full list of  June 27 Action Items here.

Call 215-400-4010 before 4 PM June 26 to sign up to speak, or sign up online here.

Action Items of Note

The School District Is Not in the Real Estate Business

Item 40:  Declaration of Unused and Unnecessary Land & Buildings; Sale of 4030 Brown Street, Belmont Elementary School to Belmont Futures

Item 41:  Lease with Drexel University or its affiliates for Building for the Co-Location of Powell Elementary School and Science Leadership Academy – Middle School

APPS Analysis:  Both of these items were on the agendas of recent Finance and Facilities Committee meetings. But they are not just about buildings or the exchange of money.  These decisions will affect the educational options of the people in those communities. Will those issues be raised in the Action Meeting? One parent advocate and regular attendee of Board meetings, who lives in the Belmont catchment area, asked why there have been no community meetings about sale of 4030 Brown Street.

As Dr. McGinley pointed out, 4030 Brown Street is neither “unused” nor “unnecessary”.  The renewal of Belmont charter at 4030 Brown Street, on hold since 2017 because Belmont would not agree to conditions, was fast-tracked by the Charter Schools Office under the direction of the Board, despite the fact that Belmont failed to meet academic standards in the 2017 renewal evaluation and Belmont refused to sign the new charter for two years. McGinley also reminded Board members that this is not about a building, it is about the neighborhood.  Belmont is a catchment area school.  At neither this meeting nor the May 16 meeting did any District staff member give a reason why the District should sell the building.  We will continue to urge the Board to vote No on this Item.

Soon after University High School was closed in 2013, Drexel bought the property and demolished the building.  Now Drexel wants to build a new school at 3601 Filbert Street with the District contributing an undisclosed amount towards construction, co-locate Powel Elementary and SLA Middle School in that building,  and lease it to the District. Drexel President John Frye and several Drexel representatives gave a 40-minute presentation at the June 13 Finance and Facilities Committee that had actually been placed on the agenda under “District Presentations”.  We don’t understand how the process has moved this far with, again, no recent (if any) community or District meetings about it.

More Taxpayer Money to Outside Law Firms

Item 23:  Engagement of Outside Counsel

APPS Analysis: At least once a year, usually more, the District adds millions to its fund for outside legal firms. This month the Board has allotted $4.25 million per year for the next three years for the designated 33 law firms.  Over the years, APPS has questioned this method of paying legal fees, for a number of reasons. First, the District has an Office of General Counsel which employees about 25 lawyers. Are cases that could be handled by that office being referred to outside lawyers at a much higher cost?  Second, 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.

More Outsourcing of Leadership Training

Item 80:Contract with Old Sow Coaching and Consulting, LLC – School Leader Coach Training

Item 81:  Contract with Philadelphia Academy of School Leaders- Aspiring Assistant Superintendent Academy

APPS Analysis: Both of these action items raise the question of why the District insists on spending funds on outsourcing training that should be in-house.  The District needs to spend this money on restoring the resources and staff that schools have lost over the past 15 years, instead of coaching teachers and principals how to survive without the staffing and tools necessary to educate children.

The District should not need to hire a coaching and consulting company to train the people they have hired to coach their newly hired coaches.  Was not part of the requirements for the new hires job expertise and experience in coaching leadership? They should already have the knowledge and ability to coach “new, struggling and aspiring leaders.”

Philadelphia Academy of School Leaders was founded by Joseph Neubauer, former CEO of Aramark, and is funded by the Neubauer Family Foundation.  His intent is to “fix” Philly schools by giving principals “high-level management training — lessons in entrepreneurship and implementing strategic plans, conversations with nationally recognized researchers and leaders”—like former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who is already on the company’s roster.  The Academy’s team consists of four people, including a graduate of the Broad Residency in Urban Education and two former TFA teachers. This training is undoubtedly going to be heavy in corporate education reform models.

Action Item 81 states that the District needs the Academy’s help in creating an Aspiring Assistant Superintendent Academy due to the high turnover and attrition of  Assistant Superintendents. But high turnover and attrition are consequences of running a school district like a business. In the business world people routinely get experience and use their connections to move on to higher paying positions in other companies.  Fostering a stable community is not part of the business model.