Joint Board Committee Meeting: May 14, 2020

By Diane Payne and Lisa Haver

Student Achievement Committee

Present via video:  All members of the Student Achievement Committee were present for this remote meeting: Co-Chair Angela McIver;  members Julia Danzy, Mallory Fix Lopez, and Maria McColgan. District Chief of Staff Naomi Wyatt gave a presentation. District Counsel Lynn Rauch attended via phone. McIver read an objection to the proceeding under the PA Sunshine Act raised by community member Michael Burke. McIver did not specify which part of the Act Burke was citing, but she stated that the written objection would be part of the official record and further noted that the Board’s position is that following the State health guidelines does not constitute a violation.  The Committee approved the Minutes from the April 23 joint Student Achievement and Finance and Facilities April committee meeting.  Four Members of APPS testified in defense of public education.  All Board Committee Meetings can be viewed on the Board website and meeting materials and agendas can be viewed on the Board Meeting Material page.

Staff Reports on Online Learning, Enforcement of Policy 252

Wyatt narrated a presentation on the Continuity of Education plan.  This Power-Point included information on distributed chromebooks, internet access, student participation in online learning, and efforts to locate and engage students not yet participating.  Wyatt stated that the District is working with City officials, including the Department of Human Services, to locate students who have had no school contact throughout the school closure in order to assure their well-being and attempt to re-engage them.

Wyatt stated that the District continues to implement Polciy 252 regarding the protection of transgender and non-binary students with guidance from the CHOP gender clinic.  Any student can request a virtual name change; following that request, the principal will contact the student to ensure understanding of confidentiality risks.  The Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities will then follow up with the student and execute the name change.  The LBGTQ community and advocates have long noted District shortcomings in both setting and  implementing policy that protects the rights of these students.

Wyatt fielded questions from the Committee after the presentation.  District Counsel Rauch interrupted this portion to again read the objection raised by Michael Burke regarding violation of the Sunshine Act in relation to how the meetings are conducted.  It is unclear whether Rauch did not know this objection was already noted by McIver or it was necessary for her to state it as legal counsel.

Board members questioned the District’s numbers on remote-learning student participation reported for K-8 grades compared to middle school and high school.  Wyatt explained that older grade students’ log-on access is recorded by the District, but in K-8 schools only teachers have this access.  Because of the learning curve involved in this completely new format, it is thought that some students may be participating but not being recorded.  An additional issue with younger students is the need for parent engagement during online learning–not always possible in some households due to circumstances beyond family’s control.

Board member McColgan noted that the increased communication with school-based staff in her child’s school is a positive outcome that should be continued as schools reopen.  Actually, parents have several avenues now for communicating with teachers and principals. McIver reiterated the need for increased awareness and training for District staff as designated reporters of child abuse.

One Board member asked Wyatt whether all teachers are checking in and following directives.  This is a very difficult time for students, families, and staff.  Sensitive exploration of how all systems are working are crucial, but staff should not have their dedication and integrity questioned by the Board.

Board Eliminates All Public Presentations on Charter Renewals

President Wilkerson continues to urge the public to advocate for changes in the PA Charter Law. But the Board’s continued protection of charter operators, from private negotiations to eliminations of all public review, clearly shows the need for charter reform at 440. The Board will be voting on more charter renewals this month. For the first time in years, the Charter Schools Office gave no presentation on the schools being renewed, and no member of the Board asked why or gave any reason for this absence to the public. In fact, none of  the Board Members asked any member of the staff for any information on the two schools up for renewal.  APPS has asked for public hearings on charter renewals as these represent multi-million dollar expenditures for the District. The Board asks the public to support charter reform at the state level, but has now eliminated the one opportunity for public scrutiny of the District’s charter schools. Payments to charter schools comprise one-third of the District’s budget.

Mastery Douglass is the most recent failed Renaissance Charter school to come up for renewal.  The Renaissance program, instituted by Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, has handed management of District schools to private businesses. At April’s Action meeting, outgoing Board member Chris McGinley introduced a resolution from the floor to officially end this failed program. Wilkerson shut down any discussion or action, ironically citing Sunshine Act concerns.

Illustrative of McGinley’s concern, District data shows that Mastery Douglass has failed to meet basic standards.The SPR (School Progress Report, a District criteria) Achievement scores for this school are 3%, 4%, and 5% over the past three years. SPRs in single digits hardly indicate a school improved by District abdication of control. The CSO Renewal Evaluation assigns a “Does Not Meet” in Academics; Douglass also fails to meet Organizational compliance. But those failures don’t stop the Charter School Office from recommending a 5-year renewal with conditions–conditions that will remain secret until after the Board votes. Nor does the fact that Mastery administrators put the students in harm’s way by allowing them, for months, to drink obviously toxic water. The Board will renew with little if any discussion.

When Councilmember Kendra Brooks raised the issue of exorbitant charter CEO salaries in City Council, Wilkerson replied that the Board does not set those salaries. Technically true, but ignores the fact that the Board never raises the issue. If the Board held public hearings on charter renewals, the Board could ask the charter CEOs about it directly.  As guardian of public funds and public schoolchildren, the Board has the authority and the obligation to raise this issue. The CEO of the Mastery chain, as recorded on the 2017 IRS 990 (the most recent available), makes $274,205.  Ten additional Mastery executives make well over $100,000 on this same 990.  If these schools are failing, shouldn’t the public be questioning these salaries?  Shouldn’t the Board?

Russell Byers Charter, the other school up for renewal, is in the Watch Academic achievement category at  30%, 42%, and 37%.  The CSO Renewal Evaluation shows that Byers failed to meet standards in both Academics and Organization. Demographics indicate that the economically disadvantaged population for this school is at 48% while District averages are at 70%. The school serves no English Language learners. But none of these facts stopped the CSO from recommending a 5-year renewal with no conditions. The 2017 IRS 990 shows a $205,252 salary for this school’s CEO–to operate one school. It is a safe bet that both schools will be renewed at the May 28th Action Meeting, probably unanimously. Last year, the Board renewed seven Mastery schools, most failing to meet standards, with no public hearing or deliberation. We will see no directive from the Board to the well-paid administrators of Byers or Mastery Douglass to provide their students with a better education.

The renewals for these two schools will cost the taxpayers approximately $100 million over the next 5 years. This while Board members tell us to take our concerns to Harrisburg.

APPS Questions on Expenditures Go Unanswered Another Month 

APPS members attend, research, and report on every Board of Education meeting.  This close monitoring enables APPS to challenge the Board on its claims of community engagement and transparency.  At this meeting, APPS members asked questions regarding failure to explain excessive expenditures on Action Item change-orders and exorbitantly increased Action Item contracts; ignoring public voice on charter relocation requests while citing incorrect justifications for doing so;  failure to question or hold accountable charter school renewal requests; elimination of CSO presentation on charter renewals;  and how accepting grants for individual schools furthers district-wide equity.  Failure to acknowledge or answer questions asked by the public does not constitute community engagement.  Nor does reducing public speakers’ time from 3 minutes to 2 with no explanation, or reducing the number of speakers on one topic from 4 to 3. When the Board voted to eliminate the long-standing Policy on public speakers, they assured APPS members who questioned the move that nothing substantial had changed. We now see that was not true.

There is no justifiable reason for manipulating Board practices and reducing the public participation venue even further.  As it is, the Board can now swiftly and decisively cut off the mic of speakers and move to the next speaker in a seamless and uninterrupted fashion leaving speakers in the zoom deadzone.

Finance and Facilities Committee 

Present via video:  Co-Chairs Leticia Egea-Hinton and Lee Huang, Committee member Joyce Wilkerson. Angela McIver, Julia Danzy, Mallory Fix Lopez, Maria McColgan, and Ameen Akbar also attended remotely.  Egea-Hinton opened by urging the public to tell their state elected officials not to cut education funding. APPS members, in letters and testimony, have urged the Board to reassess its spending priorities. The latest example is the Board’s renewal of two charters for 5 years, at a cost of $100 million.

McIver announced the objection sent in by one member of the public. She did not cite the specific objection, but did say that the Board was not in violation.

The Committee approved Minutes of the April 23 Joint Committee meeting.

Chief of Staff Naomi Wyatt narrated her presentation on “Continuity of Education”. She updated the Committee on the number of Chromebooks distributed, $84,000 to date.  Wyatt explained the difficulties in measuring student participation but said that the District is using a variety of methods, including students logging in to classes, texting or calling teachers, and submitting work. Students in upper grades, but not K-5, can use a portal log-in.  The District is working to facilitate interactions with counselors and other support staff. Wyatt reported that the District has been working with City officials in the Philadelphia Housing Authority and the Department of Human Services to contact the 15,000 students who have not yet been heard from. Teachers, principals and staff are contacting students not just for academic reasons but to monitor their well-being. Wyatt reminded Board members that students have access to paper learning materials as well as online materials; the paper guides can be picked up at the food pick-up sites. Students with Special Needs and English Language Learners are receiving regular services. Barriers to internet access remain a challenge; the District has made postcards available to families that can be sent in when these problems are encountered.

Teachers are aware that they remain mandated reporters of child abuse and neglect even now, when determining that has become more difficult.

Wyatt reported that the District had made changes around Policy 252 to ensure protections for transgender and LGBT students. Teacher Maddie Luebbert raised this issue at last month’s Committee meeting, and Fix Lopez said she would follow up. Wyatt said that all students of any age can request a name change. 

Wilkerson asked what the plan is to figure out whether kids are “actually learning anything”.  McColgan asked whether there is a plan for looking out for students’ well-being. McColgan also asked whether teachers can keep contacting parents even after children return to school buildings, which seemed to imply that she was not aware of the many avenues teachers and staff have to communicate with parents in normal times. Wyatt repeated her statement that teachers are looking out for students’ well-being.  Fix Lopez asked whether the District is looking out for the health and well-being of teachers and staff and making sure they have all the materials and resources they need. She cited her own challenges in teaching college students, with a lighter workload than District teachers, with two young children at home. Wyatt responded that there is a weekly faculty meeting where the focus is not just accountability but well-being of staff. Coaches are still available to all teachers, not just new teachers. In answer to a question from Egea-Hinton, Wyatt reiterated that counselors are reaching out to students.

New Board member Ameen Akbar remarked that “the word creative comes to mind” when it comes to methods of outreach. He said that he had wondered about whether teachers are using social media to communicate with students and families. This and other questions asked at the meeting raise some serious questions about whether some Board members have been following the updates issued by 440 staff;  know that teachers have always communicated with families on a regular basis through social media and other avenues; that teachers have been looking out for their students’ well-being, even before the District had set up online learning; that teachers will continue to assess students learning; that counselors, as part of the faculty, attend faculty meetings and have also been reaching out to students.

Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson gave an updated presentation on the District budget. The District now has a positive fund balance, but expects to be in a serious deficit by 2022.  Mallory Fix Lopez asked Monson to define “essential business” and explain how that criterion is informing decisions on decisions being made now and in the near future. APPS member Diane Payne had asked these questions in public testimony, in a letter to the Board, and in a Notebook commentary.

Monson responded that every department looks at its own costs and determines which have the greatest impact on student learning. He said that judging “essentialness” is ongoing, but it is sometimes difficult to weigh now what may be essential in the fall.

Interim Facilities Chief Jim Creedon and staff member Alicia Prince reported on current construction projects, in particular the new building on Ryan Avenue in the Northeast. Some feeder elementary schools will have grades truncated; others will expand from K-6 to K-8. Ryan said that a number of parent and community groups were surveyed and that the CSPR team was consulted. Fix Lopez asked how the survey is working with FLO analytics and the other CSPR consultants. Prince said they were not connected, which seemed to contradict the information on her power-point that the CSPR team was part of the process. McIver asked whether the decisions re boundaries were increasing segregation. Egea-Hinton,  “channeling” former Board member Chris McGinley, asked how the Facilities office has adapted its projects in dealing with the covid-19 crisis. Prince also  presented information on “swing spaces”  where students can be relocated when there are emergency closures due to toxic issues or construction. Wyatt replied that in addition to those already designated, Strawberry Mansion, Overbrook and Bartram high schools have been added to the list. The space at 440 used by SLA students at the beginning of the year will remain a swing space.

Creedon reviewed the CDC guidelines for cleaning schools and classrooms next year should schools reopen. Monson noted that this increased cleaning will cost more money.  None of the Board members asked whether the District was planning to hire more custodial staff.

McIver stated that the District needs a plan for health monitoring and asked about the status of Medical Director. Wyatt responded that the District does have a Medical Director who had worked at CHOP. Fix Lopez pointed out that the Medical Director is actually a part-time position. If the District will be implementing a plan to monitor the health and safety of students and staff, a full-time Director is needed. Fix Lopez said that the District should have a full-time Medical Director even in normal times.