Finance and Facilities Committee Meeting: October 10, 2019

by Diane Payne

The SLA/Franklin snafu was the subject of remarks from Board members, Superintendent Hite, and community members. Some public speakers asked why no Board members were present during the community meetings earlier in the week. 

Present and Opening Remarks

Present were Co-chairs Lee Huang and Leticia Egea-Hinton, Committee members Joyce Wilkerson and Wayne Walker (who again participated via phone). The remaining five Board members also attended: Julia Danzy, Mallory Fix-Lopez, Maria McColgan,  Angela McIver, and Chris McGinley. Also seated at the head table were Superintendent Hite, Chief Operating Officer Danielle Floyd, and Chief Financial Officer Uri Munson. Wilkerson announced that the City of Philadelphia CFO Rob Dubow was in attendance in the audience.

Huang opened the meeting with remarks about the construction fiasco at Ben Franklin High School (BFHS) and Science Leadership Academy (SLA) that has dominated the news this week.  Students at the BFHS facility have been out of school due to detected asbestos levels in the building which is still under construction (a $37 million project) to accommodate the co-location of SLA. Town Halls held at the beginning of the week for both schools were packed with angry parents, students, and staff demanding to be heard and to be treated as a united body.  A question asked by many was: why did the District not have a contingency if construction were not completed? Parents we spoke to said they asked for a “Plan B” several times, but were told by the Hite administration that no Plan B was needed. Huang offered nothing specific beyond the expected “we must do better” comments. No mention was made of the insensitive and exploitative remark posted online by Joseph McColgan, husband of Board Member Maria McColgan and President of Neumann/Goretti Catholic High School. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported:  “Members of the Ben Franklin and SLA communities also were troubled Sunday by a Facebook post by Joseph McColgan, the president of Neumann-Goretti High School in South Philadelphia, telling parents, he would be “more than happy to assist you in placing your students in a learning environment that is cleaner, safer, equipped with better instructional leaders and most important to the taxpayers of Philadelphia, less expensive.”

McColgan issued a statement the following day stating that her husband’s post was made without her knowledge and that it did not reflect her views.

Huang directed general questions to Hite regarding lessons learned and changes moving forward.  Minutes were approved and the meeting was turned over to Hite.

Superintendent Hite’s Remarks

Hite informed the audience that Ben Franklin students will attend classes at the building which housed the now-closed Khepera Charter School at 926 W. Sedgley Avenue in North Philadelphia.  SLA will hold classes at both the administration building at 440 N. Broad St. and Rodeph Shalom at 615 N. Broad Street beginning on Monday, October 14. Hite stated this was approved unanimously by the task forces of parents and students from both schools that formed following Monday’s town halls. He noted that BFHS students wanted to remain together in one location.  Hite reported that a number of organizations in the city reached out to offer assistance but that most locations offered couldn’t house the number of students affected.

Hite identified three “buckets”  into which he would place his lessons learned: collective capacity, project management, and involving more stakeholders.  In the first *bucket* of collective capacity Hite noted the barebones staffing at 440, a holdover of the draconian budget cuts under previous Governor Corbett.  These cuts, he said, has left 440 with such a shortage of staff that capacity to keep abreast of projects is stretched too thin.

Some found it ironic that this becomes the first “lesson learned” for administration in explaining why this disaster has occurred, yet teachers who make far less than Dr. Hite and his staff are nitpicked on a daily basis despite enduring those same budget cuts affecting their staffing levels and resources.  The Hite administration pushes regional superintendents who push principals who push teachers to implement every inane District mandate, including more and more testing and data collection–even if these mandates not only fail to aid in teaching but even impede a teacher’s ability to best educate their children.

In the project management “bucket”, Hite noted that penalties are built into construction projects and the District must do better at enforcing these penalties when companies fail to perform.  A shocking piece of information that came out at the earlier hearings was that the District had only one manager overseeing all construction sites across the District. Hite also noted the need for designating “swing space” in order to have a viable contingency for any kind of possible school closure.  He identified Strawberry Mansion High School and South Philadelphia High School as two spaces to be prepared for any future events; both of those schools have CTE capacity. He also listed Martin Luther King High School as a possible space.

In the stakeholders bucket, we can only shake our collective heads in dismay.  Hite’s lesson: involve more stakeholders in the process. Stakeholders have testified ad nauseum before this Board, as well as the SRC before it, about the lack of stakeholder input in just about every faction of District operations. Students, staff, advocates, and community members have decried the SRC’s and this  Board’s lack of real community engagement. Over and over, in everything from teachers asking to be heard, student’s asking to be heard, advocates asking to be heard, the drill is the same. Three minutes to speak before the Board or committee then the comments, suggestions, and concerns are relegated to a black hole.  At the September Action meeting, the Our City Our Schools coalition (OCOS) presented a first year report card to the BOE.  Suggestions for improving in community engagement were included.

Why does it take a crisis splashed across the headlines and the ensuing public outcry to bring acknowledgement from District administrators about problems and issues that have  been ongoing? This was seen in the Toxic City:Sick Schools Inquirer reporting that caused the District to publicly respond and take public action on abatement issues even though this was not new information.  APPS members have attended meetings at both 440 and at neighborhood schools on Priority Schools, Redesign Schools, Renaissance Schools, you name it. We see the wishes of the community relegated to the back burner at every turn.

So, as some Board members pointed out to Dr. Hite, all of the buckets of lessons sound good, but the proof will be in the pudding.  When the light has faded on this crisis, will it be business as usual? You can’t build trust on words; it must be built on actions.  There are decades of mistrust that will not be abated overnight.

Chief Operating Officer Danielle Floyd  and two officials from the City Health Department offered their insights on asbestos abatement and attempted to answer Board questions.  Again, several Board members did state that the lessons learned will only be as good as the actions that follow.

[All committee and Board meetings’ videos can be viewed on the District’s Board of Education page of the SDP website.  To view Hite’s entire list of lessons learned and improvements to be instituted regarding this and other current and future projects construction projects, the video of this meeting will eventually be available under “view previous meetings.”] 

President Wilkerson’s Remarks

Wilkerson followed Dr. Hite’s presentation with her own remarks.  She spoke about a recent Inquirer story in which she was quoted as saying that she “directed” Board members not to attend the town halls.  She laughed when she said that of course it is not in her purview to “direct” Board Members but that she did advise them not to attend.  Her reasoning was that she supported the Superintendent and that their absence somehow sent that message.  She noted that the events with BFHS/SLA were sobering and that the District needed to do better.

Maybe Wilkerson didn’t “direct” BOE members, but advising them not to go to the town halls is still an indication that this Board does not operate as an independent body.   What she hoped to demonstrate as supporting Dr. Hite many saw as abdicating responsibility when the tough got going.

When teachers don’t measure up in their Danielson Framework evaluations (even though this is loaded with pedagogical deficiencies)  their administrators take them to task. Is Dr. Hite ever taken to task when he doesn’t measure up to his $300,000 salary and job performance expectations?

Chief Financial Officer Uri Munson gave a report that highlighted the financial “sweet spot” the District is in at this moment.  Due to a confluence of market factors, the District can increase its borrowing capacity with no change in rates. The $300 million borrowing plan could be increased to $350 million with no change in rate.  However, the District is requesting $500 million to take advantage of this perfect timing for low-rate borrowing. With the many large construction projects the District is undertaking, this additional borrowing will support these construction projects.  For federal tax purposes, the capital raised through this method must be used on construction projects. It cannot be used for environmental remediation specifically. However, often in a facilities project, environmental remediation is also accomplished.

Munson also reported on the staff leveling that has recently been completed.  In most cases, as per his report, the number of staff affected is less than previous years.  This was due to specific areas that were held harmless therefore those teacher positions not touched as well as better predictive analysis before the leveling.   The leveling area in need of more improvement next year is special ed.

(Question: will the District’s financial situation ever be “sweet” enough that teachers don’t have to buy paper and supplies?)

Public Speakers

Lauri Mazer, a District parent and member of the Philly Healthy Schools Initiative, asked why the suggestions and solutions that have been brought before this Board time and again has still not resulted in meaningful outreach from District staff.  (Speaking of stakeholder buckets…) She vowed to continue to speak out and speak often to demand the District work with stakeholders on the issue of abatement and toxic schools.

APPS member, parent, and District teacher Zoe Rooney spoke from her unique position both inside and outside the District.  She pointed out the harm that messages from the media and even from within the District send to her students at Strawberry Mansion High School.  She said students internalize the messages around them, and when their school and neighborhood is disparaged they internalize that message. She noted the District’s culpability when identifying SMHS as a “swing space”, which  tells her students that no effort will be made to increase attendance at Mansion.

Rooney went on to point out that the leveling discussion that took place earlier was discussed as a financial issue rather than an academic one. The practice of leveling affects students and teachers, not just the bottom line. Rooney further noted that when the Board of Education members were directed (or advised) by President Joyce Wilkerson to not attend the town halls, it was a blow to trust.  Not being present, and even more so directed to not being present, sent a message to all stakeholders that the Board’s accountability is questionable.

Because of the length of the Superintendent’s remarks and the CFO report, the meeting went on for over two hours. The Finance Committee meeting had to move because the Student Achievement Committee was to convene at 5 PM. That meant that some of the speakers on the agenda, including APPS members, were not able to be heard as they had to attend the second Committee meeting also.