Eyes on the Board of Education: December 15, 2022
by Lisa Haver
Irony, apparently, is not the Board of Education’s strong suit. After imposing a number of speaker suppression policies, with no notice or explanation to the public, the Board now proposes hiring a firm for $70,000 to expand the district’s “capacity to engage families, students, staff and the overall Philadelphia community in authentic two-way engagement efforts.” Are the Board’s action meetings not authentic enough? The Board clearly wants to hear from a very limited number of families, students, staff and community members, and only for two minutes at a time. The Board eliminated three of their four public committees, including the Parent and Community Engagement Committee, venues that were supposed to provide opportunities for more dialogue about issues of concern. The one remaining committee, the Policy Committee, now meets only twice a year. The Board’s Policy page does not even mention that there are meetings. Governance by invitation is not a substitute for true public engagement.
Charter renewal hearings would also be a place for authentic two-way engagement, but the Board refuses to hold them. All charter business is conducted in private, and the final vote is taken in secret. The full renewal agreement is withheld from the public until after the vote. The Board voted to hold renewal hearings for Laboratory Charter School. But after the hearings were placed on the calendar, the Board postponed them without explanation. We found out later that the district had settled on terms for renewal with Lab’s operators in private negotiations. The same scenario seems to be playing out currently with Southwest Leadership Academy; those hearings have been postponed until January 2023.
Time after time, the Board promises more public engagement while actually curtailing it. APPS watches what the Board does, not what it says.
Action Items of Note
Item 2: Contract with Brownstone Public Relations to Expand Two-Way Community Engagement Efforts
Initial cost: $70,000
Possible renewals: 2 at $50,000 annually.
APPS Analysis: This item brings more outsourcing of senior staff duties to outside contractors.
Brownstone has already done business with the district as the outsourced coordinator of the superintendent search. We were never told exactly how deeply the company was involved in the process, but the finalists–three men from other parts of the country, none with adequate experience–were met with disapproval from the community at large. The item allows for two annual renewals at an additional cost of $50,000 per annum, for a total of $170, 000 over the next three years. Isn’t the Board already paying Joseph and Associates for the same services? When Watlington this week warned of having to make “tough choices”, it seems he didn’t mean derailing the consultant gravy train.
Item 25: PowerSchool Learning Management System
Initial cost: $1,750,000
Renewal options: at least one year. “Each option at a fixed amount of 104% of the preceding year amount.” ($1,820,000)
Total for 2 years: $3,570,000
APPS Analysis: From the item description: “The Educator Effectiveness System established a statewide, comprehensive rating system for teachers, administrators and non-teaching professional employees based on traditional classroom observations and multiple measures of student achievement.” One of the promises made by Watlington during the interview process was that he would be using the talents of the professionals already working for the district. He repeated that promise during the Transition Team meetings. This item seems to indicate that Watlington wasn’t serious about that. Why would the administration need to pay $3.5 million to an outside company to implement an “Educator Effectiveness System”? Do the employees of a company headquartered in Folsom, California know the students and educators in the district better than the professionals who live and work in Philadelphia? Does the district need yet another rating system–or do they need to put money into classrooms not into the pockets of consultants? Before voting for this costly contract, the Board should ask Watlington why 440 staff cannot continue to carry out these responsibilities.
Item 10: Contract with Amazon.com
APPS Analysis: Rather than do business with Amazon, in the face of well documented inhumane treatment of its employees, the Board should find a way to support local businesses.
Item 29: Memorandum of Understanding with Kooth USA, LLC
Cost: $1,800,000 for first year; two annual renewals possible.
Total cost over 3 years: $5,400,000. The district would pay this contractor for online mental health services for students in grades 6 through 12.
APPS Analysis from former district counselor Lynda Rubin: The Board should reject this contract and invest more funding for school counselors and para-professionals. Children need support from the adults in their lives, and they need real counseling from trained professionals–not a faceless, anonymous, algorithm-driven website. Kooth USA, LLC is actually a UK company trying to break into the US. Its website gives hints at what the services would offer, giving considerable space to highlight opportunities for investors. Kooth identifies as an “international leader”, but descriptions of the actual services are vague and presented more in PR terms. The site provides activities on mental health topics where students can share their thoughts and concerns. Students will have access to activities about specific topics such as reading articles, goal setting, “self-guiding support” etc. It is not clear whether students can interact with others on the site. Will the district allow students time during the school day to use the online services? The promise of complete anonymity – from parents and in “discussion boards”–raises the question of how to assist a student who appears to be in real trouble or how to learn about the students from teachers, counselors, and other support staff. Live-chats are available, but the Kooth LLC website says there can be a one-hour wait. Before the Board approves this contract, they should raise these important issues, especially that of maintaining confidentiality. Item #29 states: “This support is intended to enhance existing mental health services”, but doesn’t address the role that counselors, teachers or parents would have in the process.
(The item states that the cost of this program is covered as an “in-kind donation as part of the state’s program, but no specific donor is named.)
Items listed without costs on the agenda page: Item 8, $4,500,000; Item 17, $9,091,868; Item 19: $7,098,448; Item 24: $2,480,381. Why do people have to open the attachment to the full item to see what the district is spending on certain items?
Total spending on this meeting agenda: $183, 938, 557.
Find the full agenda here.