Joint Committee Meeting: October 8, 2020

by Lynda Rubin

At the combined meetings of the Student Achievement and Support Committee and the Finance and Facilities Committee, several Board members questioned the accuracy of reopening information District staff has presented. Their repeated follow-up questions to 440 staff struck a different tone than that of previous meetings.  It remains to be seen whether Board members will stand firm in their pursuit of in-depth answers and standards necessary for safety or continue to accept the vague answers given by the Hite administration. 

Board members Angela McIver, Leticia Etea-Hinton, Julia Danzy, and Lee Huang attended both meetings in their entirety; Maria McColgan joined late. President Joyce Wilkerson appeared at the beginning of the first meeting, but was not seen for the remainder of the session, although she could be heard at times. The Board should display the images of all those in attendance. If that is not possible–if they are connected by phone or their camera is disabled–their names should be on screen for as long as they are actually present. The public has a right to know who is present and who is not. (The Board website page indicates that Ameen Akbar has not yet taken on a committee assignment.)

Minutes of the September 3, 2020 meeting were approved.

Student Achievement and Support Committee

Return to Learning Implementation Pathway Update 

Note: links to this and other presentations were not available at the time of the meeting and have not been posted as of this writing.

SAS Committee Chair Angela McIver noted that Prince’s presentation is only for key updates and is not the full Return to Learning report. That will be given by Dr. Hite at the Action meeting on October 22, 2020.

Building/Staff Readiness: Chief of Staff Alicia Prince opened by announcing that administrative and climate staff had been phased into all buildings except for those buildings undergoing capital work. She stated that “Air Balance Ventilation” reports are submitted to the District five days after testing, so current stats on the website are not yet updated. Prince stated that release of  both Facilities Health and Safety Components installation as well as Air Ventilation Balance reports have been pushed back to October 16th. While the date for instructional staff to return to buildings has yet to be determined, any staff  who choose to do so voluntarily are welcome to come into buildings, except for the 31 buildings currently being renovated. The number of students who have received computers is106,196;  17,072 have not. Prince said that  the District currently has sufficient number of substitutes on hand– 931– although this will not be enough when hybrid learning begins. She stated that teachers and principals are 100% covered, but general cleaner numbers have dropped and some Building Engineers positions need filling.  Prince said that her update at the next Action meeting will include the number of schools that are completely ready.  The District will communicate with parents about what hybrid classes will look like, as well as those remaining fully digital, on October 15th. The District will release approved plans for Hybrid School Operation Plans on November 25th. The District will begin phasing students into buildings on November 30th. 

Attendance: Prince stated that 90% of students attended virtual sessions, but after Board members’ requests for clarification, she qualified her statement to mean “collectively” 90% attended, but she did not explain what this meant either.

District’s administration and staff have a history of carefully wording all information to reflect accomplishments in the most positive light, even if that is misleading. Unfortunately, such overstating has led to disastrous results in the past, as occurred with the lack of the environmental safety of several buildings, including the Ben Franklin/SLA construction debacle.  

Prince told Board members, in response to more than one question, that they could ask Dr. Hite at the October 22 Action Meeting.  Huang said that his questions were more appropriate for Hite, then asked Prince why Hite  wasn’t at this meeting, considering the proposed reopening is only weeks away.  A better question would be: why did the Board not summon Hite to the meeting? 

McIver said that parents of the estimated 17,000 students still without computers or internet connections may not have all the information about how to get them.  Prince responded that the District will reach out to all parents. In answer to a question from McColgan, Prince said there are currently over 2500 “unenrolled” students, down from 4400 a few weeks ago, and that the District is “working on it.”  She added that some may be in another type of school (charter/private/online) or have moved. McColgan expressed her concern about  such high numbers of non-accessed  students and asked for a “sense of urgency” in following up. McColgan and Danzy asked whether the District was working with the City’s  Department of Human Services (DHS) on locating these students.  Prince replied they were in contact with DHS and are “jumping on truancy faster”. She mentioned counselors, but didn’t explain exactly what they would be doing to find missing students. 

Ventilation:  McIver questioned the District’s progress on ventilation safety in schools. She stated that with only 49 schools cleared and 175 to go, including only adding 24 more cleared schools in the past few weeks, it would take 7 months to complete all of the District’s schools. Prince did not respond to McIver’s question, only saying that all ventilation reports will be turned in by next week. She added that 86% of the inspections are complete but await the written reports. McIver pointed out that the District doesn’t know how many of those reports will identify schools that will have failed the certification. Prince replied that the District is “ bringing in Air Balancers to determine how much occupancy a building can have. We’ll know immediately the timeline to bring a school into compliance. In the meantime, schools can open windows and use fan circulation.” McIver stated that while this is a Facilities issue, the Board needs to have a separate inclusive report by the October Action meeting. Egea-Hinton concurred and added that the report should concentrate on how many schools are cleared to open or not, rather than on how many rooms in a school may have to be closed. 

APPS is concerned about the District’s priority of meeting deadlines as opposed to ensuring sufficient precautions and procedures have been met that justify its return to an in-school program.  

Charter Schools Office 

Charter Schools Chief Christina Grant reported that Philadelphia charter schools are following the following Instructional Models as of 10/1/20: Full in-person,  None;  Hybrid, 6; Virtual only: 80. Ad Prima, Discovery, Maritime, Russell Byers and West Philadelphia Achievement Charter are in hybrid mode, although Grant said that the six schools were carrying it out in different ways. Wilkerson (off-camera) asked whether the CSO knew the  attendance levels and digital connectivity levels of charter schools and their level of digital connectivity.  Grant’s non-response was that the District is monitoring charter enrollment.

Review of Action Items 

Prince stated that the District intends to bring in the Equity Coordinator for Masterman as soon as the Board passes the $65,000 contract with Steppingstone Scholars. 

Chief Academic Officer Malika Savoy-Brooks recommended passage of Item 22, a $1,700,000 contract with Instructure, Inc. for its CANVAS Learning Management Program (LMP). 

The Item description states that the “maximum compensation authorized per option period” would be fixed at  an amount not to exceed $1,400,000.”

This contract pays for services from November 1, 2020 through June 30, 2021. However,  in the body of the Item’s description is the following sentence: “The Learning Management Platform will be strategically introduced in middle and high schools this school year and elementary schools in school year 2021-22.” In other words, the District is already planning to have the contract renewed for the following year (at $1,400,000).

Public speakers later testified that while LMP systems can be useful, Canvas is considered one of the worst ones due to an inferior interface that results in a high failure rate for users. Egea-Hinton later expressed her own concerns about the user interface problems, as someone who has used Canvas LMP. She asked for a clarification before the vote in two weeks and stated she doesn’t want to pay money twice (paying for another program to replace this one if it doesn’t work effectively). McIver added that as a parent who has experienced portal problems, it seems “backwards” to invest in this LMP only to then worry about figuring out how to use it. She also questioned where this expense fits into the District’s essential needs. In response, Prince said that it would eliminate multiple systems, but didn’t give any financial or user data info of currently used systems for comparison.

It appears this contract is being marketed as a $1,700,000 expenditure, but further reading of the item’s description itself reveals the expectation that the District will renew the contract at $1,400,000/year in future years. This is during a time in which the Board and the Administration again claim that they can’t afford to negotiate a reasonable wage increase for PFT members and that they must make cuts in programs, including additional staff needed,  that directly affect students’ learning. Just last week, Board members discussed closing more neighborhood schools. Yet the District is now making plans to spend $1.4 million a year to yet another edu-vendor corporation. 

Charter Chief Grant stated that the CSO is now recommending a 5-year Renewal with Conditions, effective October, 2020, for Keystone Academy Charter School. Conditions include changes in enrollment and transportation options. Full renewal information will be posted next week. The 2019 ACE reported that Keystone meets the standards for  Academic Success (K-8) and Financial Health/Sustainability, but does not meet the standard for Organizational Compliance. The District’s 2020 allotment to Keystone Charter is $8,660,826. A 5-year renewal will cost at least $43 million. 

Public Speakers

Zoe Rooney, Math Teacher, parent and APPS member, testified from her car in the parking lot at Children’s Hospital, reminding the Board that meeting times make it difficult for working parents to attend and testify.  She pointed to the continual approval of expensive contracts such as the one proposed in Item 22 with its duplicative systems:  “Savings is not your priority.” Rooney then cited the poor quality of school buildings; the most alarming now is that only 11% of buildings meet ventilation requirements. Rooney also told the Board that racial equity is more than a box to be checked off after one 45-minute PD session by outside companies who know little about our schools. 

Several speakers addressed ELL concerns. Fran Williams, District staff member, spoke about STAR Assessment Testing problems and its effect on the self-esteem of ELL students, saying that students are being rushed through programs without support.

Cheri Micheau, APPS member and ELL expert, stated that ELL students are being moved through high school grades too fast, that school programs such as the one at Franklin Learning Center (FLC) have failed due to lack of support by the Hite administration. Micheau said that there should be Newcomer programs created throughout the city, and suggested the District create an International High School for both ELL students and other students interested in the program. Furness teacher Tiffany Lorch reminded the Board that 50% of that school’s students are ELL.  She noted that Furness is a school of choice for ELL students because of the acceptance and guidance there. Lorch concurred that STAR Testing should be eliminated. Lorch then told the Board that a District representative should be making the calls to 211 for internet access instead of telling parents of ELL and special needs children, especially Autistic Support, to do that.  Lorch said that BCAs (Bi-Lingual Counseling Assistants) are an underappreciated and underpaid support for assisting students. BCA’s are not given access to programs that students in need of support use. Lorch pointed out that BCA’s make $23,000 starting salary and are expected to use their own cell phones and internet access to support District students.

Lynda Rubin, retired school counselor and APPS member, spoke against the Board’s imminent move to eliminate  Renaissance Policy 141 and to collapse several charter policies into just two.  Elimination of crucial language would absolve the Board of its responsibility to oversee these schools. 

Numerous teachers, parents and Masterman alumni spoke about their concerns over the growing lack of diversity at the school. One speaker advocated for appointing a history teacher of African-American background.  Several spoke about the school’s failure to address racial difficulties among students and discrimination against African-American students.  They advised the District to investigate the issues at Masterman and to address them, not just hire an Equity Coordinator. 

Teacher Matt VanKouwenberg told the Board that the District needs to be aware of actual data of Covid cases in order to make accurate decisions.

Finance and Facilities Committee

Board member Leticia Ega-Hinton chaired this meeting.

Financial Update

Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson offered  two brief updates:

  1.  Cyber charter enrollment has increased 22%, not 13% as previously reported.
  2. Other charter admissions have increased since last year, but at a rate lower than what the District had budgeted for. There are some charters whose enrollment is significantly lower than their enrollment allowance.

There were no questions from Board members.

Change Orders

Chief Operating Officer Reggie McNeill reviewed the reasons for change orders that raise the costs of any job or service already contracted.  Any changes to signed contract specifications which alter the work product and/or design of a program, especially those that will affect costs,  must be put in writing and formally approved by all parties. Since change orders cause the District to pay more for a project/service than planned, the Board is looking to reduce the need for such orders in the future.  Mostly they are caused by unforeseen conditions, e.g., discovery of asbestos or other factors that must be addressed.  McNeill stated that the District should look at the design process to avoid the need for later change orders. At each stage of the process changes to the design can be made. Since changes usually require increased spending.  McNeill, in effect, is telling the Board that stakeholders should meet to review the plan at all levels of progress to determine any changes to be made at the earliest stage of the job possible to effect cost savings.

Public Speakers

APPS member Lisa Haver reiterated Lynda Rubin’s concerns about the deregulation of Renaissance charters. She told the Board that APPS will be sending a detailed analysis of the costs and outcomes of the 21 Renaissance charter schools. Following Haver’s testimony McColgan asked for clarity regarding how the SRC created and ran the Renaissance Schools Initiative: What authority was given to SRC?  How much control does the Board have over Renaissance Schools? McIver was also unclear about those facts. McColgan said she had expected more questions to be sparked. 

Parent Activist Cecelia Thompson expressed concern about facilities readiness for any in-person learning. She suggested there be a moratorium on truancy reporting. The District could  instead have a team of District and DHS workers find out why children are not in school.  Prince replied this is the SDP policy. The word truancy is often misunderstood, thought to be punishment only. It is actually  the entire process of investigating why children are not in school and what they need to be in school .

Egea-Hinton closed the meeting with the announcement that a virtual hearing on the revocation of Universal Daroff and  Universal Bluford Renaissance charter schools will begin on Monday, October 19th. More information will be posted on the District website.