by Lisa Haver
Board Spending Priority: More Consultant Contracts or Healthy Schools?
Committee members present: Co-chairs Leticia Egea-Hinton and Lee Huang, Joyce Wilkerson and Maria McColgan. Board members Julia Danzy, Angela McIver, Mallory Fix Lopez and Chris McGinley also attended and participated.
Egea-Hinton opened the meeting by announcing that the Board is working to acknowledge emails from the community about the environmental crisis. She said that the Board has made the asbestos crisis a priority and is monitoring it closely. Egea-Hinton invited all concerned to come to Action and Committee meetings and to write to the Board.
The Committee approved the January 16, 2020 Minutes.
Interim Facilities Chief Jim Creedon presented an extensive power-point update on the Environmental Safety Improvement Plan.
Creedon gave the status of each of the schools affected and told the Committee what the prospective re-opening date was for schools currently closed. Creedon reviewed the District’s assessment appeals. He said that the when the damage asbestos pipe was reported at Franklin Learning Center, the building was closed later that day after an emergency faculty meeting and that a letter was sent to parents. The District completed the work over Christmas break. Creedon said that communication has been a “challenge”; one reason is that hazards are often reported after school hours and word cannot get out to parents that day. As of this day, work has been completed at 23 of the 34 schools in which problems were reported. In answer to a question from Julia Danzy, Creedon said he expected to increase his staff in the near future. Egea-Hinton, who has commented in other meetings about public access to information on the District’s website, asked Creedon to make sure that people could see clearly when the information had last been updated. Several Committee members including Fix Lopez asked Creedon when the promised Advisory Board would commence.
Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson began by updating the Committee on property assessments and the District’s efforts to make sure they are accurate. School districts are now permitted to dispute assessments, although that rarely happens. In 2016, the District hired a legal firm to file appeals; the firm agreed to a 20% contingency fee on returns. Over 800 properties were identified for appeal, and 450 of those resulted in settlements. Monson also presented on the charter reform efforts, initiated by Governor Wolf’s office, that the Board has expressed support for. He explained that the PA Charter law allows for charter schools to collect payment for special education with little oversight. Public school advocates have known for years that charter schools do not have to account for special education funding and that they serve significantly fewer high-needs students. As Monson explained, the law “incentivizes” charter schools to identify students as having special needs. He estimated that the District is overpaying from 20% to 25% every year on special education to charter schools. Judging from their questions, Committee members appeared not to know that charter operators have been gaming the system this way for years, according to reports from several sources including the City Controller’s Office and the State Auditor General. Lisa Haver pointed out in her testimony that special education funding is one of the many issues that the Committee could have examined in charter renewal hearings—except that, despite repeated requests from APPS and others, the Board has refused to hold charter renewal hearings. Just because the PA Charter Law does not require charter operators to honestly report their spending does not mean the Board can’t ask them directly in a public meeting.
McGinley asked that the staff provide information on the scope of the contracts for the District Management Group, one from last month and one on the agenda for February’s Action Meeting.
The common theme among most public speakers was that the District’s priority must be spending more on detoxifying school buildings and less on outside consulting contracts.