Policy Committee Meeting: November 14, 2019

by Lynda Rubin

 The Policy Committee reviews all School District policies, some decades old, to revise, update or eliminate any in order to reflect current needs and practices. Despite repeated requests, copies of policies on the agenda were not available to members of the public in attendance. One binder with one set of the policies under consideration was placed on the desk outside the meeting room with instructions not to remove; that is, there is no way to be in the meeting and review the policy revisions at the same time. APPS continues to ask the Board to provide copies of all meeting materials so that “public engagement” can be more than a slogan.

Present: Co-Chairs Dr. Maria McColgan and Joyce Wilkerson; Committee Members Julia Danzy, Chris McGinley, and Lee Huang. Board Leticia Egea-Hinton and Angela McIver also attended.

District Chief of Staff  Naomi Wyatt made a brief presentation listing proposed revisions to policies to be voted on by the full Board at the November 21 2019 Action Meeting.

Policy #249, Bullying/Cyberbullying would be amended to include cyber-bullying; investigation and response to reports of bullying have been updated and Investigative Procedures have been removed and placed in Administrative Procedures. Staff from the Office of Student Support Services continue to conduct professional development for principals and school staff.

Wyatt then presented several policies put forward by the Office of Procurement: Policy #610.1, Termination of Contracts and Disqualification, Suspension, or Debarment of Vendors ; Policy #611, Exceptions to Purchases Subject to a Competitive Process; Policy Policy #612 (NEW -Reassigned #) Business Diversity in the Procurement of Materials and Contracted Services; and Policy #613, Cooperative Purchasing. These policies place responsibility for crucial decisions in these areas with the Procurement Department. Procurement has worked with industry experts and PA Department of Education officials to review and revise current procurement procedures.  Policy #610.1 authorizes the District to provide guidelines and standards to evaluate vendor responsibility and to terminate contracts and disqualify vendors when necessary. Procurement guidelines and procedures are to be added to the procurement manual and updated as needed as well as publishing  the manual and such updates on the website and providing this information to potential vendors. The revised Policy #611 would combine Policy 611 with parts of the original 612. Policy #612 would then be a new policy to outline the Board’s commitment to anti-discrimination in procurement and to support minority and women owned business to overcome barriers. Revised Policy #613 would provide a framework to ensure that the minimum requirements of the parameters of cooperative agreements are met and to prevent any attempt to circumvent the internal cooperative agreement practices.

Policy #901, School-Community Relations Objectives recognizes the importance of building and continuously strengthening community-school relationships. The name was changed to stress the importance of school and community relationships, not just public relations. Staff are required to engage with and solicit input from parent and community groups in meaningful ways and to allow them to express their preferences in situations, particularly via Task Forces.

Policy #902, Publications Programs governs the use of publications by the District to keep the public informed about policies, personnel, programs, finances and operations, and was updated to reflect current procedural practices regarding programs and publications.

Wyatt reported that changes to Policies #206, Assignment Within the District, Policy #701, Facilities Planning and Policy # 714, Facilities Rightsizing are being delayed because the District is completing the first cycle of the Comprehensive School Planning Review (CSPR). She said the administration expects the CSPR process will better inform how to revise these policies. Wyatt promised that the District will “proactively seek input from Cycle 1 schools and all school communities in later cycles to inform possible policy changes.” The outcome of the review will affect the revision of these policies.

Wyatt also announced that Policy #820, Ratification of Contracts and Acceptance of Gifts is being delayed until January at the request of the Office of General Counsel.

Other policies to be reviewed in January are Policy #222, Tobacco Use, Policy # 317, Conduct/Disciplinary Procedures, Policy #317.1 Educator Misconduct (Eliminate), Policy #323, Employee Tobacco Use, Policy #802, School Organization, Policy # 815.1 Internet and Media Presence, Policy #1000 Grant Management and Compliance Administration.

Wyatt announced that there are a number of policies to be delayed from the January meeting into meetings later this year and even fall 2020. She stated there was nothing in those policies that required immediate attention.

Wyatt referred to a power-point table outlining the policies that will be considered on January 16, March 5 and May 14.

A full representation of proposed additions or deletions to the above policies, as well as other power point slides can be found by clicking the Policy Committee Meeting Materials’ icon on the website at https://www.philasd.org/schoolboard/meetingmaterials/

McGinley asked whether postponing Policy #206, Student Assignment Within the District, that allows students to attend schools not in their neighborhood (a policy not updated since 1981), would not adversely affect students who want to apply for SY 2020-21. Wyatt responded that the existing #206 included a few offices and administrator categories that no longer exist and will need to be changed, but the policy can be followed as a whole until it is formally revised.  Excluding these outdated office listings, the District will follow the processes and procedures in #206 until the policy is reviewed, probably in June 2020 or September 2020. She said that CSPR (the multi-year Comprehensive School Planning Review which will determine how school age populations and communities are changing) is now starting up and could influence how the policy is rewritten. It seems duplicative to make such minor changes, then revise again if input from CSPR changes the thinking of the larger scope of this policy.  McColgan interjected a concern about delaying until next September. More discussion ensued until Wyatt said the Policy could be reviewed sooner rather than later if the Board so wishes and then reworked after CSPR input, if necessary. Danzy expressed concern for parents making decisions about next year without a clear working policy now. McGinley wants principals to be clearly notified now that current policy provides for very few admissions outside their catchment area.

Committee Discussion on Policies

McGinley noted that the Board goes through many more hours of training than is indicated in Policy #004, Board Norms and Organization 

Wilkerson felt that there has been difficulty in the implementation of Policy #249, Bullying/Cyberbullying. She further noted that principals have told her that the District has a fairly restrictive policy of what can be shared and revealed to parents of other children that places the schools technically in compliance but doesn’t help to resolve the issue at hand. Wilkerson invited any suggestions on remedying this situation for the child.

Wyatt asked Rachel Holtzman, Deputy for Students Rights and Responsibilities, and Abby Gray, Deputy for Climate and Safety, to speak about what the District is doing on this front.  Both speakers referred to the training and professional development given and the work done by counselors and coaches to support students involved in bullying. Gray said that they know what best practices are but how to get them into school use is an issue. She also stated that everyday school climate needs to be improved. Gray stated that five years ago there were 10 schools with PBIS (Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports)  and now there are 80.

McColgan asked whether all schools receive sufficient support. Danzy stated that staff often tell her that many incidents are not reported by administrators so that the official record does not accurately reflect each school’s climate. While the administrative staff continued to speak in a more academic terms about research, supports and PD, some in the audience clapped because they know that schools have long been told to keep such reports down to improve State statistics. Unfortunately, Wilkerson’s original concern–that there is a disparity between following policy and actually resolving the issues to the satisfaction of parents, students and staff that still needs to be addressed–was never answered.

Tiffany Johnston, Director of the Office of Minority and Small Business Development, gave a presentation on the School District’s new Policy #612, Business Diversity in Procurement of Materials and Contracted Services, especially Anti-Discrimination Policy and Minority/Women Owned Business Participation in Contracts. Committee members engaged with Ms Johnson about plans and practices to accomplish short and long-range improvements in this area.

Catherine Block, Chief of Communications and External Relations, and Karyn Lynch, Chief of Student Support Services, presented the parameters of Policy #901, School-Community Relations Objectives for principals and employees to promote District policies and communications with the public. New positions in this endeavor are Internal Communications Director, designated to “better engage our 19,000 employees as brand/messaging ambassadors” and a new Media Relations Specialist, to showcase District accomplishments and “to improve public perceptions and understanding of our schools and staff, to focus on goals for major initiatives and crisis management supports for principals”. A chart outlining Office of Family and Community Engagement (FACE) policy goals and outreach activities were projected. Danzy asked several questions regarding how responsive  the District and schools are to actual parent requests. Block presented for Dr. Shawn Bird, who was not in attendance, on the implementation of student reports reflecting grades, attendance and behavior; teachers and counselors can review these with students and parents for each marking period. Training for Office staff to improve “customer service skills” and for School Police Officers to improve school entry process for high school students is being stepped up. Again, we remind the Board that parents and community members are not customers buying a product, they are citizens and taxpayers taking part in a civic endeavor.

Policy #903, Public Participation in SRC Meetings was recommended for elimination, the rationale being current practices are outlined on the Board of Education website under the Speaker Request Form. However, only some of the current guidelines exist on the Speaker Request Form page. More importantly, however, removing these guidelines from any formal policy enables future Boards to change them at will, without public notice or comment.

Public Speakers

Stephanie King, parent of two students at Kearny School in Northern Liberties, spoke on proposed revisions of District enrollment policies (Policies #206, #701 and #714 were postponed earlier in the meeting). KIng stated that the School Selection Process is actually the “School Segregation Process”. Kearny this year has one White kindergartner–her daughter. As she put it, she is the mother of 40% of white students in that school whose catchment area is actually 55% White. She urged the District to make changes in relevant policies. She suggested that at the least,  the Comprehensive Plan should list “equity” as a goal. She urged the Board to eliminate the rule in Policy #206 that “students can attend any school in the District that has room regardless of the boundary lines” at the elementary/middle schools level. King suggested changing the rule for “right-sizing” policy (when schools become overcrowded or underused), to include an equity component, as has been used in other cities, to promote desegregation. She stated this would also save millions of dollars currently being spent on trailers put in schoolyards to gain additional classrooms in order to maintain all students in the school. King noted that spending money on trailers is simply to accommodate some parents who do not want their children to be sent to nearby schools with classroom space because of the racial composition of those schools’ student populations. Third, limit elementary schools’ ability to admit out of boundary students, thereby increasing their schools’ strengths by draining those of others nearby.

Peirce Elementary parent Marnetta Arnold requested the policy for asbestos removal. Wilkerson asked her to cite her specific concerns so that District staff could respond. Wyatt then asked a staff member to meet with her outside and get her specific questions and contact information.

APPS co-founder Lisa Haver again protested the lack of meeting materials provided to the public.  She thanked Julia Danzy for her comment about under-reporting of serious incidents and noted that a punitive mentality, rather than a cooperative one, has existed for many years among administrators, principals and teachers.  She urged postponement of action on the elimination of Policy #903. The information online does not offer a complete substitution for the policy; changes to the policy should include more specifics, not less.

Kristina Moon, staff attorney at Education Legal Center (ELC), spoke regarding bullying concerns. She noted that ELC had submitted concerns and suggestions for inclusion in a anti-bullying policy that are not  reflected in the proposed Policy #249. Moon stated that unaddressed bullying is the main reason parents give when leaving District schools. For example, a student with an IEP who complains of bullying should have this complaint immediately reviewed by the IEP team instead of waiting for the usual investigation process. Parents remain confused about the process of investigating bullying; the new policy does not spell this out sufficiently. Oversight should be mandated in the policy. Moon cited an incredibly low number of 19 incidents for the whole District reported in 2018-19.

Mama Gail Clouden spoke about the history of these same policies being suggested and revised over the years and said that administrators should continually ensure that policies are actually followed.

Tiffany Rogers, parent of an 8th grader at Hill-Freedman World Academy, spoke about her child being the victim of continual bullying, requiring her to leave work to address her son’s asthma onset from anxiety. Rogers became distraught as she described her son’s experience. Last year, school administrators had persuaded her to participate in outside mediation after another student’s actions led to her son’s breaking his wrist. Rogers felt that this was done to protect the school’s reputation. After first claiming the situation had been an accident, school officials later acknowledged it had been deliberate. Rogers said that she had followed every policy listed online about this and other incidents without appropriate redress. Parents should not be made to feel they are the problem, she told the Committee.

APPS member Barbara Dowdell addressed proposed revisions of Policy #901. She and many of her extended family have been both students and teachers in the District. She cited a recent WHYY news report about lead in water at Mastery Douglass Charter School, where Mastery officials neglected to notify parents of the danger, as an example of how not to handle parent notification. Dowdall also requested that closed-captioning of Board and Committee meetings be used when streaming to video to supplement signing since signing may not be as well understood by hearing-impaired students, parents and community. She strongly requested re-establishment of school libraries and certified librarians and stated that a Board member’s first visit to a school  should not be to address failure or closure.

Parent Emily Pugliese spoke about how, through unofficial parent networks, some parents learn how to by-pass out-of-catchment enrollment rules to get their children admitted to particular schools. She suggested that principals be removed from the process of approvals to their schools and even that such admissions be done by straight lottery to ensure that all admissions are done according to the same rules. Peglisi also addressed the lack of crossing guards, recognizing that it is a police responsibility but wanted the Board to be aware of this safety issues.

McColgan announced testimony had been submitted by Barbara Dowdell about Policy #901; by APPS member and parent Zoe Rooney regarding Policies #004, #611 and #903; and Kristina Moon’s ELC submitted  policy recommendations.

After the speakers concluded, Wyatt informed the Committee that in 2018-19 there had been 1407 bullying reports, 382 of which were founded. She suggested that Ms. Mooney speak with present Administration staff about her concerns and suggestions.

McGinley commented on Ms. Piglisi’s remarks on the unauthorized methods used to have children admitted to certain schools. He noted that the Board has been critical of charter schools’ engaging in such activities and that the Board believes it is very wrong to allow that to occur in the District and that all administrators and principals should be reminded of that. Wilkerson suggested that should culminate in a clear statement to the District of what is and isn’t acceptable. Wyatt agreed that this will be clarified in writing for the entire District community. Danzy added that implementation and oversight of such practices must be tightened up to prevent their continuance. She also stated that bullying reporting should also be given greater oversight and repeated her suspicion that reporting is minimalized.

Wilkerson suggested that the Bullying policy be reconsidered and amended for resubmission to the Policy Committee. Danzy reiterated that even the best written policy, if not given strict oversight, can change nothing. She noted that parent perceptions must be dealt with in this policy.

The Committee recommended that Policy #249 be further renewed. Without significant changes it could proceed to  a first reading at the December Action meeting. Other policies cited today could move forward.

McGinley requested that Administration staff return to the next Policy meeting to clarify the specific guidance issues that are given to schools about enrollment issues and out-of-catchment admissions.

The meeting adjourned after one hour and 45 minutes.