Eyes on the Board of Education: March 25, 2021

by Karel Kilimnik

Spring is here, and as more people become vaccinated, we begin to see a light at the end of the quarantine tunnel. Unfortunately, the light of public engagement has been increasingly dimmed by the Board of Education and their ever-changing rules for public speakers, which only erodes trust in the Board and the District. Philadelphia is the birthplace of Democracy, and public education is the foundation of a democratic society.  This incremental silencing of community voices represents a failure of leadership by Mayor Kenney, the Board members chosen by him,  and Superintendent Hite.  The 133 students, parents, teachers, principals, and community members who signed up to speak at the special March 18 meeting proved the need for the Board to lift all constraints on public speakers.  The Board must reverse its regressive speaker policies. 

This agenda is like a closet full of empty suits: cryptic descriptions devoid of information; new and extended contracts to vendors in line for their next helping at the education buffet;  the growing legal firms  slush fund.  Will the Board ever halt this diversion of public money to private vendors? We need leadership determined to rebuild the staff and resources lost from Dr. Hite’s devastating 2013 Doomsday Budget. 

The March Action meeting agenda devotes another mega-block of time to Goals & Guardrails™, the glossy scheme designed by people unfamiliar with education and pedagogy. It reflects a slick attempt to codify education and boil it down to testing results with data as the driver, not the real needs of Philadelphia’s students.

Educator and blogger Peter Greene writes:  “Education has been overrun by the Cult of Data….Data is not magic, and educators should not bow at the data altar.” 

 Nowhere  is a commitment made to create and deliver the resources and staff necessary for academic achievement. The “Funding” section acknowledges the lack of dedicated funding for the District and cites the University of Pennsylvania’s $100 million grant ($10 million/year over 10 years)–failing to acknowledge that Penn’s failure to pay its PILOTS costs the district over $40 million a year.  Penn, as the largest non-profit in the city, could lead the way for Temple, Drexel, and Jefferson to pay the PILOTs they agreed to years ago.  

These Agenda Items illustrate the dearth of  District leadership in fighting for an equitable education for all students in every school. If the Board is truly committed to having all students reading on or above grade level,  where is their commitment to rebuild school libraries with a Certified Teacher Librarian in every school? Item 5 (Amendment of Grant Agreement with The Fund for The School District of Philadelphia) amends a contract to fund classroom libraries. Classroom libraries are important but this private organization’s agenda should not be driving the elimination of school libraries.

The Board continues to omit critical information from Item Descriptions. For example, Item 14 (Ratification of Amendment of Contract with Paul Nedeau ) provides no background on Paul Nedeau’s background or training that equips him to deal with “planning for school reopening issues, including COVID-19 testing”. This present reopening plan is the District’s fourth attempt. Numerous problems including building preparation and testing protocols exist that could have been prevented had they been better planned. 

Dr Hite’s contract ends in 2022. The community must have a seat at the table when the Board replaces him. How will the Board handle the search for the next Superintendent? Will this be handed over to a third-party such as Helbling & Associates who are now searching for a  Deputy Chief of Operations (Item 13 Contract with Helbling & Associates – Executive Search Firm)? 

Item 19 authorizes more outside legal firms and more compensation following the practice of the SRC. Item 35  (Amendment of Memorandum of Understanding with Explore Learning, LLC – STEM Learning Resources) starts with a sentence that needs clarification. Despite a request to the Board no explanation was forthcoming.

What if

…the Board directed the Superintendent to hire additional staff to support our students instead of  contracting with vendors? Institutional memory is becoming a thing of the past at 440. Several principals, at the March 18 Board Hearing,  urged the District to pass a policy that says every school will be assigned an assistant principal, a climate manager, math and literacy lead teachers, and a Special Education coordinator.  None of the Board members responded to any of the principals or to the leader of their union. They should do that  at this meeting.

  • April Action Meeting:  Thursday, April  22, 5 PM.  
  • Budget Meeting, Thursday, April 22, 4 PM.  
  • Policy Committee Meeting, Thursday, April 15 at 4PM.  
  • Check the Board website for updated information on how to sign up to testify.

Action Items of Note

Find the full List of Action Items here.

Always Money for Outside Consulting Contracts.

Action Item 13: Contract with Helbling & Associates – Executive Search Firm ($75,000)

The Administration recommends that the Board of Education authorize The School District of Philadelphia, through the Superintendent or his designee, to execute and perform a contract, subject to funding, as follows: Compensation not to exceed: $75,000 

Description: Helbling & Associates will work to lead the successful recruitment, selection, hiring and onboarding of a Deputy Chief of Operations. They will work to source potential candidates for the role, present the candidates to decision makers within the District, and support the successful screening of candidates within the District.  Helbling will also coordinate reference checks and support the successful offer and acceptance of the District’s new Deputy Chief.

APPS Analysis: This is the second contract going to Helbling to fill a “key executive role”. Barely a year ago they landed a contract to “not exceed $90,000” as the District searched for a Chief Operating Officer following the Ben Franklin High School/SLA debacle. This Description provides no details about how Helbling will “support the successful offer and acceptance of the District’s new Deputy Chief.” What does this entail? The Description claims that Helbling will “support the successful screening of candidates within the District” how can we know that they are truly looking at candidates from within the District? At the January 30, 2019 Action Meeting, Finance and Facilities Committee Co-chair Lee Huang asked Dr. Hite to “outline the long-term solutions to finding a permanent Facilities Chief”.  Dr Hite responded that the District had contracted with Boston-based District Management Group (DMG) to evaluate exactly what the District needs. Hite went on to say that he expected their report within the next week or so. Has the Board received that report, and if so, how can it be viewed by the public? We have been waiting to see that Report 18 months later. The District promises reports but rarely delivers. If Board members see these reports, so should the public.

Who Is Paul Nedeau and Why Is the Board Awarding Him Another Contract?

Action Item 14: Ratification of Amendment of Contract with Paul Nedeau ($20,000)

Description: The Office of Talent previously retained Paul Nedeau to provide consultant services in connection to COVID-19 and school reopening planning under a Limited Contract, which was capped at $20,000.  As circumstances have evolved and inter-related issues arisen, it has continued to be in the best interests of the District to seamlessly continue to rely on his services, without a break in service, hence a ratification request for additional funds for the additional scope and amount of services provided by Mr. Nedeau.

APPS Analysis: The Board proposes awarding a second contract to the mysterious Paul Nedeau. He received a contract for $20,000 at the July 23, 2020 Action meeting for “Consultant services related to planning for school reopening for 2020-2021 during COVID-19 pandemic”. No information was provided as to his qualifications for such a position. Extensive online research lists leads to information that he has been a spokesperson for the New Jersey Department of Education (if this is the correct person). This Item states that the scope of Mr. Nedeau’s understanding and involvement has expanded.  This represents the Hite administration’s fourth attempt to reopen school buildings this year. We have witnessed #Fangate, the administration’s attempted deception about the quality and number of window fans to be installed. Now we read reports of limited COVID testing using materials soon to expire, with no District commitment to ongoing testing.  As teachers and students return to classrooms, photos of filthy rooms, some with mouse droppings, have been posted.  The Board should question Dr Hite’s claims that all buildings have been cleaned, outfitted with hand sanitizer stations, and employ appropriate ventilation. What role has Paul Nedeau played in this ongoing problematic reopening of schools? Where are his credentials for engaging in these efforts?

Legal Slush Fund Grows

Action Item 19:  Authorization of Increased Outside Counsel Fees for FY21

The Administration recommends that the Board of Education authorize The School District of Philadelphia, through the General Counsel, to increase payments in Fiscal Year 2021 made for outside legal services, which the Office of General Counsel retains on an as-needed basis to represent the Board of Education, The School District of Philadelphia, its present and former employees, and present and former members of the Board of Education and the School Reform Commission, subject to funding, as follows:

Additional compensation for FY21 not to exceed: $1,500,000

Payments to:

  • Ahmad & Zaffarese, LLC
  • Archer & Greiner, P.C.
  • Assigned Counsel Incorporated
  • The Axelrod Firm, PC
  • Baker Botts LLP
  • Ballard Spahr LLP
  • Bazelon Less & Feldman, P.C.
  • Bennett, Bricklin & Saltzburg, LLC
  • Brustein & Manasevit, PLLC
  • Charles F. Forer Alternative Dispute Resolution Services
  • Company Counsel LLC
  • Cozen O’Conner
  • Dilworth Paxson LLP
  • Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott, LLC
  • Fineman, Krekstein  and Harris, P.C.
  • Fox Rothschild LLP
  • Goldberg, Miller, & Rubin, P.C.
  • Griesing Law, LLC
  • Hangley Aronchick Segal Pudlin & Schiller
  • King, Spry, Herman, Freund & Faul, LLC
  • Kolber & Randazzo, P.C.
  • Landau, Hess, Simon, & Choi
  • Levin Legal Group, P.C.
  • Manko, Gold, Katcher & Fox LLP
  • Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin
  • McNichol, Byrne, & Matlawski., P.C.
  • Montgomery, McCracken Walker & Rhoads, LLP
  • Pepper Hamilton, LLP
  • Pietragallo Gordon Alfano Bosick & Raspanti, LLP
  • Rudolph Garcia, Attorney at Law
  • Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis, LLP
  • Sweet Stevens Katz & Williams, LLP
  • The Law Office of Benjamin N. Gialloreto
  • Turner Law. P.C.
  • Welsh & Recker PC
  • Wilson Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker LLP
  • Wisler Pearlstine, LLP

Description:  The Office of General Counsel (OGC) attempts to handle as many matters in-house as possible and reduce reliance and expenditures on outside counsel. The types of matters and extent of needed outside legal services fluctuate and are not susceptible of precise estimation. OGC accordingly retains outside counsel on an as-needed basis to provide or assist in providing legal services in various matters based on, among other things, expertise, complexity, and resource and technology capabilities. No firm or lawyer is entitled to receive any District legal work. OGC seeks reduced hourly rates, with firms often significantly reducing their billing rates for District matters, or under alternative, flat, and capped fee arrangements. OGC also closely reviews outside counsel invoices and, when appropriate, requires adjustments to bills. 

On June 27, 2019, the Board authorized OGC to spend $4,250,000 per year for FY20, FY21, and FY22 on outside legal services.  A confluence of factors led to an increase in outside counsel retention and fees and costs in FY21. These factors include, for example: need for specific expertise and capacity for intensive document collection, review, management, and electronic production in non-routine, unanticipated, and/or highly technical and regulated areas; increase in employment and labor related matters, including novel issues stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic such as school closing and reopening, mediation and other mandatory bargaining issues with District employee unions, and the District’s legal requirement to bargain two collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) with the PFT during FY21, as well as CBAs with CASA and SPAP; and absences in OGC due to medical and maternity leaves.

APPS Analysis: The Board continues the SRC practice of spending millions on outside counsel despite having its own Office of General Counsel staffed with over twenty attorneys. In 2016 the SRC spent a whopping $3,401,232 on outside counsel. In 2019 the Board approved the same expenditure at  $4,250,000 per year, for a total amount “not to exceed $12,750,000” with an End Date of 6/30/2022. Embedded within this list is Assigned Counsel Incorporated, that appears to be a temp agency for lawyers and paralegals. Presently the Office of General Counsel has a $9 million budget. Why is there a need for Outside Counsel services? Perhaps part of that answer is the District has to pay for all charter school non-renewal legal fees. (page 103).

Board Should Restore School Libraries

Action Item 5: Amendment of Grant Agreement with The Fund for The School District of Philadelphia,  $102,770

Description:   Due to delays caused by the pandemic, the Fund for The School District of Philadelphia has approved an extension to its current grant to allow key teacher training to continue through spring 2022, which itself has been made possible by generous, on-going support from The Vanguard Group, Inc., as part of its Strong Start for Kids Program.  The more pre-K teachers with access to high-quality classroom libraries that are able to incorporate them into developmentally appropriate instructional practices, the more young children that will have their individual early literacy needs satisfied, which will have a long-term positive impact on academic outcomes as those students transition to School District Kindergarten classrooms and beyond.  The grant includes some funding to track the progress and measure the impact of the project, and a final report will be due to the Fund for The School District of Philadelphia by June 30, 2022.

APPS Analysis: if the district is truly committed to the reading goal of every child reading on or above grade level then where is the commitment to rebuilding school libraries with  Certified Teacher Librarians (CTL)? For years, APPS members have testified on this need, citing research studies showing the benefits of school libraries. All students need access to books and guidance from a CTL. School libraries have been shut down and converted to classrooms or other spaces.  Some schools have libraries staffed by volunteers who may be well intentioned but do not have the education or skills of a CTL. Recently appointed Board members who all graduated from District schools call out the wonderful education they received. Isn’t it time to provide the same opportunities for today’s students? They need far more than a classroom library. School libraries need to be restored.  In 1991, the District’s schools had 176 librarians. There are now fewer than ten. We call on the Board to recognize this and begin restoring school libraries.  Will the Final Report  of this Project be posted on the District website or will it be buried away from public scrutiny? Classroom libraries should supplement  school libraries, not replace them.

More Community Disengagement

Action Item 35:  Amendment of Memorandum of Understanding with Explore Learning, LLC – STEM Learning Resources ($109,000)

Description: In December, GlaxoSmithKline was awarded a grant to the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia, the purpose of which is to provide resources to support K-12 STEM learning through the pandemic and beyond. This amendment is needed to extend the term of the MOU to June 30, 2022 and to add funds to purchase an additional 2160 licenses.  

By providing teachers with a rich repository of digital lab experiences, Philadelphia students will receive equitable access to engaging, meaningful science labs regardless of where they are learning from or what school they attend. The Memorandum of Understanding would include 40 licenses for each high school (up to 2,160 licenses). Explore Learning, LLC will provide all 9-12 science students in the District with engaging science simulations that help them see and interact with scientific concepts and principles. 

APPS Analysis: This Description contains an oddly constructed sentence “In December, GlaxoSmithKline was awarded a grant to the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia, the purpose of which is to provide resources to support K-12 STEM learning through the pandemic and beyond.” Did the Fund award a grant to GlaxoSmithKline or did GlaxoSmithKline award a grant to the Fund? Instead of answering this simple question, the Board added another layer of bureaucracy by referring this request to clarify to their “Action Item Review” process.  Questions along with answers are supposed to be posted the Monday before the Action Meeting.  However, here’s another caveat by the Board to further control public input:  “The Board President will then review all constituent outreach and send a representative set to the School District, which will respond in writing to the questions.” What recourse is there if your question/concern goes unanswered because it did not make President Wilkerson’s list?