by Lynda Rubin
The Board of Education abolished its Parent and Community Engagement Committee one year after its inception, having held only two meetings. Last year, the Board eliminated two more, the Finance and Facilities Committee and the Student Achievement and Support Committee. Only the Policy Committee remains, meeting not monthly, but quarterly. The Board had established the four committees with the promise of more transparency and dialogue with parents, educators, students and community members about proposed action items and general issues of concern.
President Joyce Wilkerson and Maria McColgan co-chaired this meeting. Board members Reginald Streater, Mallory Fix Lopez, Cecelia Thompson, Angela McGiver, Julia Danzy, Leticia Egea-Hinton, and Lisa Salley attended, along with Student Representative Keylisha Diaz.
The agenda included proposed revisions of Policy 105, Curriculum Development; Policy 206, Assignment of students within the District; Policy 614, Payroll Authorization; Policy 616, Payments; and Policy 704, Maintenance. Policy 705, Workplace and Construction Project Safety, was amended. New policies are Policy 708, Environmental Management and Policy, and Policy 800, Records Management. The elimination of Policy 909, Municipal Government Relations, was also on the agenda. McColgan announced that the Board would not vote on these actions until after the third reading, this meeting being the first.
Student Rep. Keylisha Diaz addressed Policy 206. She said that while she was not anti-standardized tests in general, standardized tests cause students immense stress and do not tell the full story about a student’s drive, hard work and other positive traits. She pointed out the increased stress that this year’s students are experiencing, brought on by COVID isolation and its effects on their learning experience. She also described students’ fears of not being able to get into a high school of their choice which could affect their futures. Diaz requested that PSSA’s not be used as a criteria for Special-Admit schools in general.
Board Deflects Questions on Speaker Policy Limits
Rep. Diaz requested that the Board raise its limit of student speakers at public meetings from ten to fifteen. McColgan replied, incorrectly, that because the Board is in litigation over the Speakers’ Policy, she could not comment. She asked for a comment from General Counsel Lynn Rauch who also deflected the question, saying she would weigh in later. APPS and the student organization UrbEd, represented by the ACLU, have brought suit against the Board for violations of the PA Sunshine Act through their revision of the District speaker policy, imposing arbitrary limits of thirty adults and ten students and cutting speakers off after only two minutes. Diaz was not asking for comment on the merits of the legal case. She was asking the Board to change its policy. (This justification was proved to be a dishonest one when the Board announced at its subsequent Action Meeting that it would change the limit from ten to fifteen. No vote was taken, in violation of the PA Sunshine Act, so it was not possible to know which Board members agreed to the change.) McColgan then falsely claimed that the Board “never had to turn away a student”. If McColgan were actually familiar with the lawsuit, she would know that at least one student, a member of UrbEd, was denied a place on the February speaker list. In addition, the public has no way of knowing how many people try to sign up for Board meetings and how many people are denied the right to speak.
Are Board Members Familiar with Board’s Charter Policies?
Charter School Office (CSO) Chief Christina Grant gave an informational presentation about possible non-enforcement of some provisions of Policy 401: Administration Procedures for Charter School Authorizing Functions. (The description and power point slides for both this and other presentations can be found here and clicking on the On-line Agenda for 4/15/21 Policy Committee Remote Meeting.) McColgan stated that the Policy 401 presentation was only “informational “ and not a part of the policies slated for review at this time. Grant told the Committee that charter school operators had reached out to her to request changes in evaluations because of the lack of data during the COVID quarantine. The fact is that Charter requests for amending oversight review conditions is not a Policy Committee matter, but one that should have been brought before the full Board at an Action Meeting. The Policy Committee is not authorized to decide which parts of official policies should be enforced. Grant proposed that the Board grant all charters up for renewal a new 5-year term, with a “check-up” at Year 3 or Year 1 for the more problematic charters.. Actually, the check-ups would be meaningless because the Board would not be able to rescind a formal renewal agreement. Grant’s claim that the CSO is “balancing” these extensions with surrender clause conditions, to be enacted at the check-up dates, is disingenuous at best. The Board, without any public notice or explanation, chose not to enforce the surrender clauses that several charters had already agreed to, including Richard Allen Charter, Universal Vare and Universal Audenried. When APPS wrote to the Board last December, asking when the Board would invoke the surrender clauses, we received a non-answer that only said the schools would be placed in the next renewal cohort. Board members Fix Lopez, Wilkerson and Danzy asked about the surrender clauses; Grant assured them that lack of progress would result in a school being returned to the District. McColgan asked Grant what would happen if a charter did not agree to a surrender clause, apparently forgetting such a clause would be an offering to the charter school as an alternative to the Board’s voting not to renew at that time. That is, if the charter did not accept the surrender clause, the Board would have to proceed with the non-renewal.
Policies listed for First Reading
Chief of Staff Alicia Prince’s presentation described the Curriculum Development outlined in Policy 105 as “high quality education curriculum to be monitored by the Board’s new Goals & Guardrails”. Discussion ensued among Board members and Prince about curricula affirmining racial and gender equity and include trips and EC activities as co-curricular activities. Prince said these concerns are overseen by the Office of Curriculum along with the Equity Coalition working group. Questions were raised as to who oversees various equity aspects of curricula, such as special ed compensatory education, diversity, equity, integration of Asian Americans and immigrant communities and teacher involvement in curriculum.
Chief of Student Support Services Karyn Lynch spoke on Policy 206 which includes examination of student admission criteria, oversee neighborhood school admission practices, automated school selection process for high schools, and central management of wait-lists. Lynch stated there are three placement specialists: Kindergarten, City-Wide and Legare. Lynch stated that PSSA’s will not be used in school admission practices this year. Regarding the K-12 admission process, Wilkerson said that a parent had told her other parents were using this process to avoid having their children attending majority African-American schools. Lynch told her there was no District policy for racial isolation issues. WIlkerson requested data update on this to determine whether the K-12 policy should be kept. Streater suggested that there should be a discussion on how neighborhood school images and outreach could improve their enrollment. Questions were asked about when PSSA and Opt-Out information would be sent to parents.
Board members engaged in lengthy discussion about Policy 704, and Maintenance, Policy 705, Workplace and Construction Project Safety. Both Prince and Chief Operating Officer Reggie McNeil answered Board questions. Wilkerson criticized last year’s Ben Franklin High School construction disaster regarding asbestos abatement where “massive work was done while kids were there and …no one thought to check.”
Wilkerson’s statements represent a significant rewriting of history. It’s not that no one checked – parents and educators complained about the construction dust and other dangers numerous times. Parents asked repeatedly and futilely what the Hite administration’s “Plan B” was–when, not if, construction was not complete by the beginning of the school year. Prince’s answer seemed an attempt to justify policies and procedures without actually answering Wilkerson’s questions. McNeil clarified that proposed new Policy 708, Environmental Management, although not up for discussion at this meeting, was created to address administrative procedures for asbestos, lead paint, and school maintenance and cleanliness. Prince said that “a staff member” should do a monthly walk-through with the Building Engineer (BE) since principals are too busy. She seemed to be blaming principals and BE’s for things not getting done, not the administrators at 440. Salley and Thompson questioned whether directions for “urgent issues” should be highlighted in policies. Wilkerson expressed frustration over serious issues like asbestos and safety. McNeil stated that loud equipment noises and jackhammering is only done during 2nd shift (after school day). Thompson and Fix Lopez noted that they have received complaints indicating that policy was being violated in some buildings . McNeil finally said, “Well it’s not specifically spelled out in any policy…”
Fix Lopez raised several questions about the difficulty of locating information on the District website despite following specific directions. APPS has reported for years that the maze of the District website be made more user-friendly, especially for parents and those not familiar with the website. We hope that the Board will pursue the difference between information given to them by 440 personnel and actually being able to locate it, whether on the website or in policy directions to work being done in schools.
Public Speakers and Policy Flaws
The official Speaker List included nine adults and no students. The Board’s official policies and procedures on public speakers appear to change with each meeting. APPS members and other defenders of public education have been denied the right to speak. The Board does not assure that both sides of an issue are heard. Adult speakers are not called until three or four hours into the meetings, after the 90 + minutes of Goals and Guardrails analysis. At most meetings, speakers are given only two minutes to speak and are cut off mid-sentence without comment. The yellow light, to indicate 30 seconds remaining, does not light up until 15 seconds for each speaker before the mic is cut-off. The Board’s banning of speakers and reduction in speaking time are both violations of the PA Sunshine Act and a stunning lack of regard for the concerns of the community.
Defenders of Public Education Speak
Nine listed speakers included APPS members, including Lisa Haver, Barbara Dowdall, Lynda Rubin, Diane Payne, Cheri Micheau, and Ilene Poses. Their testimonies decried the advantages that charter operators are given via secret negotiations with the Board, not posting the full text of agreements to be voted on for public review until after the Board votes, and the de facto charter expansions through mid-term charter amendments by increasing student enrollment and/or the addition of grades to be taught. Speakers voiced concern about the continuance of Renaissance Charters despite having been called, by former Board member Chris McGinley, “the most expensive program failure” in the history of the District. In response to CSO Chief Grant’s presentation, District teacher Robin Lowry cited the dismal record of progress among charters, in particular Renaissance Charters, even before the COVID crisis. Education Law Center attorney Paige Joki testified about parents’ complaints brought to ELC about charter schools’ racist practices. For example, African-American girls have been targeted and penalized for their ethnic hair styles. Joki said the Board’s Charter Performance Framework does not address illegal personal exclusion and inequitable treatment of parents and students of color. Joki testified that the cases being brought to the Ed Law Center indicates there is insufficient Board oversight of Anti-Black Racism efforts in charter schools.