Eyes on the Board of Education: April 30, 2020

by Karel Kilimnik

During this difficult time, when it seems like the earth has opened up under our feet, the Board must be especially mindful of its leadership roles as government officials overseeing a $3 billion budget. In times of crisis, there is often pressure to bypass rules in the name of “flexibility”.  While some expediency may be called for, more important is maintaining democratic structures and public trust. Last month, the Board approved a last-minute Item that ceded some of its own powers to Superintendent Hite, granting him the authority to spend up to $15 million on contracts needed to deal with the COVID-19 crisis.  The Item appears on the April 30 agenda for renewal. Kudos to Dr. Hite for instructing Chief of Staff Naomi Wyatt to recommend, at the April 23 joint committee meeting, that the Board not renew.  APPS stated its strong objection to this action, and we support its elimination.

The ongoing economic collapse portends serious budget problems for the District. Revenues from the Philadelphia Parking Authority (PPA), Rideshare tax, liquor-by-the-drink tax, and others will  take a dive. For many, memories of the 2013-14 Doomsday Budget linger. The School Reform Commission approved a budget that temporarily eliminated secretaries, assistant principals, counselors, certified librarians, extra-curricular activities including sports, most support staff, music and art, and new books.

Dr. Hite and the Board have urged the public to contact state representatives and Governor Wolf to ensure that the state education budget remains intact; if not, the federal government would lend some assistance but would not provide the same level of funding. The District has put a freeze on hiring central office staff, and Dr. Hite has also stated that his Administration is  “reviewing and prioritizing all Action Items and contracts”.  That review should include all unnecessary contracts including those for outsourced professional development from companies such as  TFA, Jounce and others.  Given the impending budget crisis, no charter school amendments for increased enrollment should be approved.  This month’s agenda includes two: Laboratory Charter School of Communication and Languages and Community Academy of Philadelphia Charter School.  As we stated in our March 24 letter to the Board,  “We have also asked that all non-essential Items be withdrawn for now, and that each Item Description include a sentence explaining why it is essential and must be voted on this month.“

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Addressing the needs of English learners during the pandemic

The following commentary was written by APPS member Cheri Micheau and published by The Notebook on April 15, 2020.

During the coronavirus crisis, staff and administration in the Philadelphia School District have been understandably concerned about equitable access to online/virtual instruction for all students, including those with special needs. I am sure that the public applauds its plan, in this rapidly changing and unpredictable situation, to buy and distribute Chromebooks, work with service providers to ensure that all students have internet connections, and produce educational packets and online resources.

Instructional approaches will inevitably evolve, and the outbreak provides an opportunity to consider how, and how well, the District has been addressing the learning needs of English learners (ELs) and how it will meet their instructional requirements online. This attention could pay off in more appropriate instructional approaches and policies, both now and in the long term.

I have long advocated, from both inside and outside the District, for high-quality, thoughtful English learner education. It has been clear to me that the needs of English learners have been poorly understood and only superficially addressed by the District for decades.

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Ears on the Board of Education: March 26, 2020

by Diane Payne

The Board of Education conducted this Action Meeting following  a number of adaptations to pandemic restrictions. In times of crisis, we may lose sight of the importance of following long-established government rules and policies, but these are the very times that make that even more important. The PA Sunshine Act ensures that the public has the ability to observe and  participate in decisions made by their government. While adjusting to the needs of Governor Wolf’s public safety direction to not gather in groups, it is incumbent on the Board to facilitate Action Meetings with as much public participation as technology affords. The Board had initially allowed for no public participation, saying that people could send in testimony 24 hours before the meeting, summaries of which would be read by Board members.  No public voices would be heard during the meeting. APPS continued to point out–in public statements and in letters to the Board–that available technology allowed for them to take and respond to questions and comments in a number of ways. For example, if most of the Board members were participating by phone, then one phone line could be used to hear from the community. Comments and questions taken via twitter and email could be answered during the meeting–and when the meeting came, that is exactly what the Board did.  It was heartening to see APPS’ suggestions put into practice. Board members read public testimony in full, and they read and responded to messages sent via twitter and email. Superintendent Hite did try to answer some of those questions with promises to provide additional answers in the follow-up venues of FAQs on the District website and his weekly Facebook live meetings on Wednesdays at 3:00 p.m. The Board has promised to improve on its efforts for April’s meeting by tapping into the technology options that offer live, interactive possibilities. Unfortunately, the Board’s introduction of two crucial items the day of the meeting has served to cast doubt on the Board’s promises of transparency.

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