Facilities and Finance Committee: December 6, 2018

by Diane Payne

Present were Co-chairs Leticia Egea-Hinton and Lee Huang and Committee member Joyce Wilkerson; Committee member Wayne Walker attended via phone.  Also in attendance were Board members Chris McGinley, Angela McIver, Julia Dancy, and Mallory Fix Lopez. Minutes of the November 1, 2018 meeting were approved.  The agenda included four staff presentations, two in response to requests from community members at previous Committee meetings.

Public Speakers

Special education advocate Cecelia Thompson and APPS co-founder Lisa Haver were the only public speakers at this meeting.

Haver questioned the Board about the surprise announcement made the day before at a press conference in the Mayor’s Reception Room. Dr. Hite and Mayor Kenney sat behind Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP) Director Mark Gleason as he announced the launch of the launch of a universal website to recruit teachers in all types of Philadelphia schools–public, charter, private, and catholic. The site also offers professional development classes.  The professional development component is an obvious way to influence through ideology as almost all are sponsored by PSP, a charter operator, or Relay Graduate School of Education.

Haver noted that APPS members attend all Board Action and Committee meetings and that there was no discussion or vote on this major policy decision.  This new website,  was sprung on the public without any notification.

Haver objected not only to the change in administrative policy without Board approval or public comment but the alarming involvement by this private organization in public affairs.  PSP is a well-known meddler in public affairs with big money strings attached.   In a December 17 letter, APPS told the Board:

PSP has been the face of pro-corporate, anti-labor education reform for years. In 2013, PSP lobbied then-Governor Corbett to withhold funding from the District, in the middle of a serious financial crisis, unless teachers accepted an over 10% pay cut and surrendered long-held collective bargaining rights. This is the organization the District wants to recruit public school teachers?

PSP’s  growing influence in the District has been cause for alarm for years.  PSP submitted the original grant proposal for the funding of the Gates Foundation Great Schools Compact, entered into by the District in 2011 and overseen by the Great Schools Compact Committee, whose meetings, closed to the public, were facilitated by PSP.  PSP operates the Great Philly Schools directory; funds and operates the Philly Plus principal training program; conducts the High School Fair; directs corporate and foundation funding to schools of its choice; and approves grants for schools that accept its conditions, whether that is implementing a STEM curriculum (at Carver) or forcing out teachers without due process (at Blaine and Kelley).

PSP has been a major supporter and funder of charter schools where staff are at-will employees with no job protection. It was disappointing to see Major Kenney, who has received labor support in his Council and Mayoral campaigns, and who claims to support union members, standing behind Mark Gleason, who has said Philadelphia public school teachers make too much money.

The Board must hold Dr. Hite responsible. What about the privacy issues built into providing PSP with applicants’  personal information by signing on to their website? APPS will continue to follow-up on this alarming policy change.

Compensatory Education Spending

Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson reported on Compensatory Education Spending.  This spending covers the expense incurred for supplementary services for children with disabilities and can be found in two budget lines: The Office of Specialized Services (OSS) and the Office of General Counsel Budget.

The budget for the OSS has seen a significant increase in recent years and has reached $14.6 million for FY18.  Monson stated that these increases are the result of a rise in students with “low incidence disabilities” (needing more intensive types of services), general cost increases, federal legal decisions impacting spending, and a more aggressive legal community seeking to represent children with special needs.

The Office of General Counsel budget item has also seen an increase to $4.8 million for FY18. This increase is attributed to more cases, higher legal costs, and more complicated cases.

The District is looking to see where they can improve services that would result in budget savings and reduced legal costs.  Areas the district are examining include: ensuring IEP’s reflect the best support for the student, making every effort to fully deliver on IEP goals, and taking steps to ensure legal fees are reasonable.

Board members had several questions. McGinley asked what “every effort” meant. Monson replied that really getting to the heart of the IEP is an issue. The District may look to outside consultants for help on improving in this area.  Monson also said that vacancy issues have affected meeting IEP goals. McGinley noted that a “knowledge gap” is also contributing to this problem. He said many principals are not trained in school law (in particular those who attend “fake” schools not “real” schools, an apparent reference to Relay Grad and TNTP), and since they are 12-month employees summer training on Special Education issues and special education law should be a goal. Monson also noted that in the past,  Special Education Liaisons (SELs) were not compensated. The district is now working with the PFT to develop a stipend for staff working in the SEL position. This will also insure that SELs receive training and attend all necessary meetings.

Board President Wilkerson asked whether Monson knew how the charter school sector was faring in this area.  Monson said he did not have very much information but that he did know that since charter schools have many fewer students described as low incidence, their burden would be far less.  Monson said he would look into whether the state keeps records on charter school compensatory spending.

It is important to fully understand the significance of Monson’s answer to Wilkerson about charter schools: 1)This information is not readily available, and 2) Charter schools do not have as many students requiring complex and costly interventions.  

Charter schools are the single largest budget item in the District budget, and have been for years.   This diversion of public dollars to privately managed schools results in harm to remaining public school students.  District public schools educate every child that comes through the schoolhouse door.  Charter schools vie for Philadelphia students by claiming they are public schools.  They also claim to have improved academic outcomes. Both of those claims are false.  Monson’s statement about special needs students reflect how charter schools, in fact, do not serve the same students.  A review of the District’s School Progress Reports (SPR) shows that the charter sector has failed to deliver on the silver bullet of academic success as well.  Information about this classification of students is not readily available to the public  from these “public charter schools.”  Charter schools are public only when they are on the receiving end of public tax dollars but not when the public needs information about their financial and academic records.

Board co-chair Hinton stated that Student Achievement will take this issue up in the spring.  Monson said that with District efforts they hope to see a flattening out of expenses in years 3, 4, and 5.

SLA Moving into Ben Franklin High Building

Chief Operating Officer Danielle Floyd reported that renovations are currently underway to accommodate the co-location of SLA High School into the Ben Franklin High School building at the beginning of the 2019-20 school year.This planned co-location will result in District savings in lease payments for SLA as well as increasing Franklin’s use of space from 35% to 67%.  The choice of Ben Franklin High for this co-location was made because of space issues, its relative closeness to the existing SLA, and its closeness to SLA’s partner institution, the Franklin Institute. (The irony is that that District owned the property at SLA’s existing location at 55 N. 22nd until it was sold, along with 21st Street, by former SDP CEO Paul Vallas. It has paid top dollar to lease the Center City property for SLA.)

The renovations are extensive and have, where possible, considered student wishes, for example, the food court.   The move is on schedule to begin July 2019. The District anticipates $2 million in lease payment savings.

Board members had a number of questions. Wilkerson asked about lessons learned in this project for moving forward.  Floyd stated that early communication with the communities helped in decisions in most of the anticipated areas of concern: admitting and dismissing procedures, security, maintaining each schools unique culture, sports, sharing of common spaces, schedules, etc. Floyd said that SLA is a special-admit high school while Franklin is a comprehensive high school.  McGinley corrected her, stating that Franklin is not a comprehensive high school because it fails to meet the threshold of 1,000 students. When the student numbers drop below 1,000 there are fewer specialized offerings and the school is classified as a neighborhood high school. McGinley pointed out that both of these schools have very knowledgeable principals helping to facilitate this process.  He questioned how SLA’s use of extended hours (students coming in early and staying late) will be affected. Floyd answered that the building’s hours of service are a contractual 6:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.

In response to Co-chair Huang’s question, Floyd stated that the lower level and the first floor of Ben Franklin are designed as common area to both schools (dining areas, gyms, etc.).  Floors 2 through 6 are designed to be unique to each school. In answer to a community member Cecelia Thompson’s question, Floyd assured that the renovations are ADA accessible.

McGinley asked what other buildings are currently leased and may need similar plans.  Floyd stated that the District currently pays 10 to 12 leases on buildings or spaces, including Constitution H.S. at 7th & Arch.  The others are mostly leases in spaces like churches to alleviate overcrowding in nearby schools.

Construction Change Orders

In this presentation, Floyd addressed the Action Items on the Board’s agendas that deal with approving a change in construction costs.  Floyd noted that either party can initiate a change of order and all changes must be reviewed and approved by the full Board. She listed reasons for these changes: design error, design omission, unforeseen conditions, owner (SDP) decision.  There is a process that is used to evaluate change orders before presenting to the Board. Floyd noted that her office negotiates savings with contractors. There are times when their office rejects a change-order request. In answer to Huang, Floyd stated that they try to avoid affecting the timeline of jobs, sometimes by having the contractor moving forward with the change even before the Board vote.  Ms. Thompson, in her remarks, noted concerns about contractors underbidding then increasing costs via change-orders. She also noted that there were concerns, in the past, about relationships between district staff and contractors that must be monitored. Wayne Walker asked a question via phone that was inaudible but seemed to be about when rebidding came into play. Although Floyd acknowledged that this does happen, it wasn’t clear about specifics that could result in a rebidding.

Facilities Update

The final presentation presented updates on the status of the various facilities projects.

Lead paint and plaster repair has been completed in six schools; five more schools have had work started: Cooke, Elkin, Roosevelt, Taggart, and Meade.

Design and Construction has 59 projects assigned, 4 advertised for bid, 40 active projects, two RFP’s for GESA work, one HVAC at F.S. Edmonds, and a new K-8  school on Ryan Avenue in Network 9. The Board will be voting on two Action Items about the new school in the Northeast. Item 12 proposes a  $110,000 contract to Cooperative Strategies, LLC to complete a comprehensive study of the Lincoln H.S. catchment for the purposes of establishing new school boundaries for the proposed building.  The schools currently in that catchment include: Austin Meehan Middle School, J.H.Brown, Edwin Forrest, Thomas Holme, Mayfair, and Robert B. Pollock.

Item 13 proposes a $4,325,845 contract to Gilbane Development Group for the pre-development planning and design of the building.  McGinley noted that the proposed student enrollment of 1600 children is very large and asked how that figure was determined. Floyd answered that they looked at the number of students in catchment schools, the number of 4-year olds, and existing boundaries when coming to that figure.  She further noted that the design company selected was asked to submit three to four examples of work similar to this project. Construction will occur while Meehan is open. There are 90 acres on the site of Lincoln H.S. Board members raised concerns about traffic, congestion, and older students mingling with younger students accessing the same vicinity.  McGinley said he hoped that consultation with principals at Meehan and Lincoln would be used when finalizing plans. Wilkerson asked whether the Board would be asked to vote on catchment changes. Floyd said that the District will need to change the catchment but that historically the SRC did not vote on these changes. McGinley noted that the Board will be voting on any catchment change.  Floyd noted that by March 2019 decisions will have to be made about both the boundary changes and  the selection of the construction company. When questioned by Huang about minority representatives in the building process, Floyd said she would have to get back to him with specifics.

Asbestos Review includes 142 schools completed and 159 schools still remain to be evaluated.  Information on asbestos is on the SDP website.

Water quality is being addressed.  The City’s L&I is doing school-wide inspections.  The District is testing all schools; they have completed testing at 13 schools.  The District is installing an additional hydration station at all schools to bring the total to 4 per school.

Winter weather preparation is underway.  93% of heating systems are operating, although the District is still challenged to provide even distribution of heat.  The Chief Operating Officer’s department meets weekly to prioritize repairs. When questioned about why there is such a problem with even heat distribution, Floyd said there are multiple reasons but one reason is steam trap mechanisms in buildings with that type of boiler.  A staff member from Floyd’s office described how city work affects the steam in Masterman and there is nothing the District can do to mitigate it.

Floyd said that the District will attempt  to make all school closure announcements by 5:00 a.m.  Alerts will be sent out through multiple channels: emails to staff, alert box on the District’s  website, social media, parent portal, and news outlets. In case of early dismissal, the District works with SEPTA and tries for two hours before normal dismissal to ensure that all students receive school lunch. Angela McIver about how old students are required to be in order to walk home alone; Floyd did not know that answer and said she would have to get back to her.  She did say principals remain in the buildings until all students are dismissed.

Floyd provided staffing updates.  She noted there are 71 mechanics, 53 building engineers, and 16 custodial assistants positions currently vacant.  There are no general cleaner vacancies at this time.

Board Discussion of Action Items

McIver questioned the need for temporary services in Item 6.  Monson explained that while the district is implementing a new enterprise resource management solution (ERP), staff may be needed to work on this project and would not be able to give attention to their department’s duties.  When staff are dedicating work hours to the ERP, they will need coverage to maintain a consistent flow in their department. These temporary positions will be on an as-needed basis for just 440 staff.

McGinley questioned the relatively small amount of money listed in Item 14 for external facade inspection.  Monson said that the City’s L&I requires anything affixed to the outside of buildings to be periodically inspected and this Action Item  fulfills this requirement.

McIver questioned the lengthy list of change orders in Item 11 and the amount of money involved.  Floyd stated that the District was required to accept the lowest bidder.

McGinley requested that the contract for the design of the new school proposed for Lincoln H.S. catchment be available to Board members before the Action Meeting on December 13th.  He also said the Board will follow-up with the compensatory education expenses in the future.