Eyes on the Board of Education: September 17, 2020

by Karel Kilimnik

“I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do.”  James Baldwin

As educators and students across the nation begin a new year, many enduring issues of inequity and racism generate discussion. We need to go beyond the clouds of words and promises of task forces and advisory committees. Educators, parents, students, advocates and school staff need a seat at the decision-making table. Better funded districts with newer facilities are able to provide both in-school and virtual instruction, while we in Philadelphia continue the fight to detoxify schools. The District’s own Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued a scathing report on the  Hite administration’s mishandling of the construction and the ensuing environmental crisis at Ben Franklin High School. Dr. Hite and his team, in hurrying the project so that Science Leadership Academy could relocate, endangered the health and safety of students and staff. The Board expressed its disappointment, then moved on with a shameful promise simply to include the years-long display of incompetence and malfeasance in Dr. Hite’s annual performance review.  

The OIG Report not only laid bare what happened during the eighteen months of construction at Ben Franklin (although omitting all names of those responsible seems designed to preclude accountability), it gave important insight into the policy and practice of the Hite administration on outsourcing and the resulting erosion of institutional memory at 440, an issue raised by APPS members for years:

“The consultant-based patchwork the District frequently relies on for so many positions has short-term financial savings, but it does not benefit the District’s long-term welfare…[W]hen they choose to leave the District decades of institutional knowledge that cannot be meaningfully replaced will leave with them, and the District lacks an available repository where that information can be preserved. Many times, positions remain vacant because there is no candidate to assume critical key roles. The window to address this issue is shrinking, and the District cannot afford to ignore the importance of resolution of this issue.”  (page vi)

Dr Hite’s mishandling of the construction and environmental crises at Ben Franklin High School, and the bungled attempts to force the reopening of schools,  prompted CASA (Commonwealth Association of School Administrators ) to create a petition demanding accountability and calling on a vote of no confidence in Dr Hite. The principals’ union petition outlines a history of the superintendent’s missteps in the District.  APPS had called on the Board to ask for Hite’s resignation in August. 

Though the September agenda may be a comparatively shorter one, it still proposes a number of outsourcing contracts. The same question arises as was asked last month: why, when there are organizations within the District–the Racial Justice Organizing Committee and the Melanated Educators Collective, to name just two–why does the District want to pay an outside company to carry out “racial equity assessment, training and action planning partner” (Item # 24)? Lack of comprehensive descriptions for each Item again leaves room for questions and concerns such as the Enable My Child contract (Item 22). Renaissance Learning (Item 9) is owned by a global equity firm that could be traded or merged with another at any time. The William Penn Foundation, a prominent player in local corporate education reform and backer of the infamous BCG plan, continues funding the Academic Parent-Teacher Teams (Item 2). Will the Board members who voted last month to deny KOZ status to Hilco Redevelopment Partners continue to oppose this item or cave in the face of relentless lobbying by the company and the Mayor’s office? Should the Board believe the vague and inconsistent promises made by the company or stand by its commitment to District stakeholders? 

During these uncertain times where developing and maintaining relationships is essential, it is incredible that this Administration would carry out the odious practice of leveling, forcing transfers of teachers just as their students are getting to know them. 

In response to sustained demands, strengthened during the recent period of protest, the District says it has created an Equity Coalition. But the District’s website fails to provide any specifics: Who is on it? Who serves on the Equity Coalition Subcommittees? When do they meet? Are Equity Coalition members actually involved in decision making or only there to offer advice. Or is this simply a window-dressing response to current events?

What if…

…The Fund for the School District distributed funds to every school based on an algorithm that included poverty rates and student enrollment, and distributed funds as a means of building equity within the District?  What if the Fund had public meetings, not private ones, to make decisions about funding public schools? Dr Hite and the Board routinely talk about equity. This is one way to promote real equity. 

October Board of Education Action Meeting: Thursday October 22 , 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.

Action Items of Note

[Find the full List of Action Items here]

Action Item 2:  Acceptance of Grant from WestEd – Academic Parent-Teacher Teams ($148,000) Description: WestEd will provide funding and family engagement support to six elementary schools as part of the Academic Parent-Teacher Teams project. The District is a sub-grantee of WestEd, under a grant from the William Penn Foundation to WestEd.  Each school will receive $20,000 over two years from the provided funding. In addition, the District’s Evaluation, Research and Accountability Office will receive $28,000 over two years to support the development of mid and end of year progress monitoring reports. Academic Parent-Teacher Teams is a model of family engagement that is grounded in the notion that schools can thrive when families and teachers work together, as genuine partners, to maximize student learning inside and outside of school. The model is research-based and aligns grade-level learning concepts, student performance data, and family-teacher communication and collaboration. Services provided by WestEd will include professional development, leadership professional learning communities sessions, teacher planning, observations and debriefs. 

APPS Analysis: As we noted in the June 2020 Eyes, “Years ago there were school-based Home/School Visitors; many were local residents who served as a bridge between the neighborhood and the school. They worked to involve parents and to help resolve conflicts. That position, like full-time NTAs, has been eliminated.  Staff in the District’s Office of Family and Community Engagement (FACE) have well over 20 schools to engage with, a far cry from one staff person in each school. These overworked personnel have good intentions but cannot possibly establish similar relationships at every school as the Home-School Visitors did. The District has continued to cut staff and eliminate positions that served to connect parents and school  as they repeatedly award contracts to vendors. “ No matter how well-intentioned the staff tasked with carrying out this program may be, it is not the same as having a full-time Home/School Visitor at every school. What happens when this contract expires?

Action Item 9: Amendment of Contract with Renaissance Learning, Inc., Additional Professional Development ($100,000) Description: Star is an online adaptive assessment used in grades 6-12 for ELA and Math to inform instruction and measure growth. Professional development was included in the original contract, but feedback on the 19-20 training program indicated that Principals and Assistant Superintendents needed to be trained on Star in order to ensure better implementation at the school level. Changes to the assessment program for 20-21, such as expanding Star to grades 11 and 12 and remote testing necessitate more frequent and robust training than was originally planned. A better understanding of how Star can be used to inform instruction and progress monitor is especially important in order for school leaders to track student progress since school closure in the Spring. The additional compensation is being funded through savings on other contracts. 

APPS Analysis: This Item offers another opportunity to think about how the District can provide a rich learning environment during a quarantine. Ideally, instruction should involve all forms of instruction,  including small groups, independent work, whole group instruction, writing and calculations. Are standardized testing and assessments appropriate during this time of separation and isolation? As one educator and writer observes, “Assessment is not a spreadsheet — it’s a conversation.The Renaissance Learning, Inc. website proclaims,  “Accelerate learning for all.” We need to fight for fully funded schools with access to art, music, and extracurricular offerings.  Renaissance Learning, Inc. is privately held by Francisco Partners, a global private equity firm that  specializes in investments in technology and technology-enabled services businesses.  How do the partners in a global equity fund know what is best for Philadelphia’s students? 

Action Item 22: Contract with Enable My Child, Ltd., Provision of Online Web-Based Tele-Therapy Platform for the Delivery of Student Therapeutic Related Services ($99,999) Description: Approximately 11,000 District students have IEPs and 504 services plans that require the District to provide them with therapeutic related services, typically on a weekly or monthly basis. Related services include speech, language, hearing, occupational, physical, vision, mobility, and ABA therapy. Last school year, related services were delivered directly to students by therapists traveling between schools. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to continue to provide students with high quality therapeutic services in a safe remote setting, the Office of Specialized Services seeks authorization to contract with Enable My Child, Ltd, to provide an online web-based tele-therapy platform for the delivery of student related services. Using the contractor’s platform, students will use computers located at home or in remote locations to access therapeutic services through electronic web-based interactive contact with District therapists. The contractor’s online tele-therapy platform will enable all District therapists, both employed or contracted by the District, to deliver related services remotely through laptop and desktop computers to all District students who require these services. The contractor’s tele-therapy program and on-line system protects student privacy rights and is fully IDEA, FERPA, and HIPAA compliant. The contractor will provide District staff with training on system utilization.

APPS Analysis:  The Board’s sketchy description does not make clear whether the District is just buying a platform or it is also purchasing resources to provide the therapists who will be using this platform in working with students. If this is simply a platform transaction why not use the systems already in place?

Action Item 27: Authorization of Keystone Opportunity Zone (Added 9.2.20) The Board of Education, upon consideration of the request of the City of Philadelphia, hereby resolves to consent that, subject to and contingent upon approval by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania of a ten (10) year extension of designations on all real estate taxes imposed on real property located in the designated Keystone Opportunity Zones (KOZ) identified below, are abated in accordance with the Keystone Opportunity Zone act, Act. No. 79 of 2008, amending Act. No. 92 of 1988.  The Act requires that all taxing authorities with jurisdiction over a proposed KOZ, Keystone Opportunity Expansion Zone (KOEZ), or Keystone Opportunity Improvement Zone (KOIZ), enact an ordinance or resolution to be included with the City’s application to the Commonwealth, providing for exemptions, abatements, credits and/or deductions from certain taxes within the KOZs.  Designation as an approved KOZ is a Commonwealth action.  The City has provided that no property shall be included in any Zone unless the owner of such property has entered into an agreement for “Payments in Lieu of Taxes” (“PILOT”), containing such terms and conditions as will provide for the maximum payment amount permissible under Section 310 of the Act, as amended.

 Background: The General Assembly enacted Act No. 79 of 2008, amending Act No. 92 of 1988, the Keystone Opportunity Zone Act authorizing certain exemptions, abatements, credits and deductions of certain state taxes in certain deteriorated areas of the Commonwealth, known as KOZs, KOEZs, and KOIZs, to promote development and job formation.

 The Pennsylvania General Assembly has passed and the Governor has signed 1237, Act No. 16 of 2012, which modified the existing KOZ legislation by allowing for a ten (10) year extension of the term for unoccupied KOEZs and KOIZs.  Philadelphia City Council has approved and the Mayor has signed Bill No. 200347, which provides for the exemptions, abatements, credits and deductions required by the Act in order to qualify for the designations and extensions referenced above and as specifically set forth in the below Schedule 1 property list.

SCHEDULE 1, Parcels in current Keystone Opportunity Zone to be extended, 

Property Address: 

A)  3143 W. Passyunk Avenue

B)  3144 W. Passyunk Avenue

C)  3403 Penrose Avenue

D)  3407 Penrose Avenue

E)  3406 Penrose Avenue

F)  6902 Essington Avenue

APPS Analysis: Philadelphia, unlike every other district in the state, has a school board appointed by its mayor.  Mayor Kenney has lobbied the Board hard for the Chicago-based Hilco, having his Commerce Director, Sylvie Gallier Howard, collaborate in presentations with Hilco representatives in both August and September, at Action and Committee meetings.  Although the Board voted this Item down last month, Hilco gets an immediate do-over.  President Wilkerson and Finance and Facilities Chair Lee Huang allowed Hilco and Howard a 30-minute presentation that was never part of the official Agenda.  In her recent Inquirer op-ed, PCCY Executive Director Donna Cooper outlines the reasons why the Board should deny KOZ status again for a company that controls a property property “which is larger than Center City from river to river, from South Street to Spring Garden.”  Cooper asks why “the district would be giving up $700,000 over the 10-year period. That might not sound like a lot, but 10 new teacher salaries could be covered with these  funds”. Hilco made vague promises to the Board about  jobs, but  this 2004 Inquirer article documents that these same promises have been offered for other KOZ with little accountability and oversight. 

Board members failed to ask for specific data showing the impact of jobs; hiring of local workers; the impact of unions agreeing to provide apprenticeships for Black and Brown workers; employment beyond construction. How can the Board decide without this crucial information?