Public Must Be Included in Facilities Planning

Ears on the Board of Education: November 17, 2022

by Diane Payne

A Philadelphia Inquirer article published the day before this meeting told of the crisis at Dobbins High School and the ongoing danger to both students and staff.  To longtime observers, it came as no surprise that Superintendent Tony Watlington, Sr., in his opening remarks, made no attempt to address the charges of administrative failure leveled by Dobbins parents, nor did any Board member ask him to address the safety issues raised in the article. Not a word was heard until  Dobbins’ parent Antoine Little  testified and demanded action.  Like his predecessor, Watlington responded by asking a district staffer to speak to the parent outside rather than address the issue openly.

Ironically, the Guardrail discussed at this meeting was Guardrail 1, Safe and Supportive School Environment.  Once again, the Board opted to hash out obscure data rather than deal with the lived reality of the students and staff at Dobbins.

Eight Board members, both student representatives, and Superintendent Watlington attended in person. Board Member Thompson again attended remotely. President Wilkerson opened the meeting by thanking educators for their work and dedication. Fix Lopez, in her legislative update, thanked first-time general election high school voters and encouraged soon-to-be 18-year olds to register to vote before the May 2023 primary. Thompson then gave her monthly Parent and Community Advisory Council report (PCAC).  As usual, little of substance was reported.  Stating that PCAC members help out at report card conferences, testify at Board meetings, and  provide feedback as transition team members represents little more than generic reporting.  It was hard to hear the student representative’s report, whether because of her quiet voice or technical issues.  Although these reports are given each month, they are never noted on the Board’s official agenda.

Watlington Pauses Facilities Timeline
Superintendent Watlington presented the updated proposed timeline for his 5-year strategic plan.  He noted that there are six upcoming phases: November, generate the “vision and mission”; December, establish a “theory of action”; December to January, define “priority areas”; January to March, set “measurable goals”; March to May, select “evidence-based strategies”. The Board would vote in June 2023 on whether to approve the plan before it is launched.  

Watlington again referred to the listening sessions  held throughout August and September, as well as the recommendations made by his transition team.  It remains to be seen how much of what stakeholders shared in listening sessions will actually be included in his 5-year plan. Participants asked for smaller class size, sufficient personnel including more support staff, non-toxic schools, safe climate, libraries staffed with Certified Teacher Librarians (CTL), and less outsourcing. Many were adamant about not closing any more neighborhood schools.  APPS member Lisa Haver, in a recent commentary, asked the question of who the Board and Watlington are actually listening to.   

Initial peeks into the 5-year strategic plan are less than encouraging.  At an earlier press conference, Watlington resurrected a plan to partner with the Free Library of Philadelphia rather than restore functioning school libraries.  Of 214 Philadelphia public schools, fewer than five schools have a fully functioning school library staffed with a school librarian.  The Free Library is struggling to maintain its own hours of operation and in no way can fill the gap of our District’s shuttered school libraries.  Many studies have shown that school libraries staffed with CTLs lead to  improved academic outcomes.    

Watlington then told of his plan to put the Facilities Planning Process (FPP) on hold. He reasoned that the Facilities Master Plan needs to support the forthcoming 5-year strategic plan’s academic goals.  All capital projects already underway would continue uninterrupted.  Watlington referred to “extensive data collected” on facilities, but the public has been waiting since the suspension of the Comprehensive School Planning Review (CSPR) during the COVID shutdown for the District to resume the FPP process.  The District’s website states that FPP public meetings will begin in October; APPS has been asking district staff about the delay. This meeting supplied the answer: FPP meetings will be scheduled in Spring 2023 at the earliest.  None of the  board members objected to Watlington’s delay of the FPP process. 

This move raises a lot of red flags. Watlington has used the term “right-sizingwhen discussing school buildings.  APPS member Barb Dowdall pointed out in her testimony that this is a corporate euphemism for closing schools.  Philadelphians lived through the disastrous and hurtful closing of 23 neighborhood schools in 2013 when William Hite became superintendent.  Many stakeholders are very concerned that Watlington represents the harbinger of more devastation.  As Dowdall pointed out, right-sizing could be positive if it meant smaller class size or increasing school libraries to the right size of 100% of schools.  But that is not what Watlington means.  

In addition to APPS, many stakeholders including Healthy Schools Initiative, People’s Facilities Plan, and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ environmental science expert have been advocating for increased District transparency and stakeholder access and involvement in facilities information and planning. The District, however, continues to ignore their demands. The looming question of the 5-year plan: is the closing of more schools  fait accompli?  Trust in the District remains a commodity in very short supply.   

Thompson asked why the information on compensatory education has been changed on the District website with no notice to parents; she pointed out that it is more confusing for families to navigate. Wilkerson replied that the district staff would work to improve that.  Thompson also asked when Superintendent Watlington would have his final organization chart available.  Watlington assured her it would be within two to three weeks. [The meeting video and agenda can be found here on the Board’s website.]

Failing Charter Companies Apply for More
Acting Chief of Charter Schools Peng Chao reported on both charter school renewals and new applications.  The link to this presentation did not work before, during, or after the meeting; only one hard copy was available in the auditorium. Thus members of the public had no way to comment on any of it.  The Charter Schools Office (CSO) recommended renewals (with conditions) for both Alliance for Progress Charter (Item 23) and Freire Charter (Item 24). After years of unexplained delay, those charter operators finally agreed to sign their agreements. Freire’s renewal is actually a 5-year retroactive renewal with conditions (how are conditions retroactive?) because they have refused to sign since 2017. In fact, Friere is already in next year’s renewal cohort. 

Because there is no penalty for charter operators who refuse to sign agreements, this is not an uncommon move. Flouting the rules is a disservice to the taxpayers who fund schools and to their own school communities.  APPS has asked the Board for years to hold public renewal hearings as other districts do, but the board opts to conduct all charter transactions in secret.

None of the Board members questioned the postponement of non-renewal hearings for Southwest Leadership Academy, which had been scheduled to begin last week but are now convening in December. We saw this same move with Laboratory Charter in October: after the Board voted in a public meeting to move not to renew, they reversed themselves after private negotiations with the charter school, ultimately allowing Laboratory to continue to operate despite their substandard performance. The postponement of Southwest’s hearings indicate that the Board is about to do the same thing. 

Chao also reported that  22 charter schools, an unusually large cohort, will be up for renewal this spring, including three first-time renewals. 

Chao concluded his presentation by introducing four new charter applications submitted before the November deadline. The Board must hold  public hearings within 45 days for each of these applications. This is an expensive process with attorneys on both sides, stenographers, and thousands of documents.  It is stunning to realize how many resources are wasted by charter companies repeatedly lining up to feed at the public tax-dollar trough. Aspira Inc. submitted two applications, as they do every year, even though the Board took back control of their two Renaissance schools just last year.  Global Leadership, whose two CEOs are paid, according to federal tax records, almost ¾ of a million dollars annually combined, have applied for a new charter high school.  The members of the combined boards of Bluford and Daroff elementary schools, controlled by Universal companies before abandoning them, submitted an application that would effectively make a new independent school–Perseverance Leadership Academy– out of two Renaissance charters. The Inquirer documented the crises caused by Kenny Gamble’s Universal company walking away from the schools, leaving students, families, and District staff scrambling to pick up the pieces.  Universal abandoned these schools rather than try to change the conditions there or to improve the academic program. 

All of these operators–Aspira, Global, and Bluford/Daroff–have failed to meet standards in the evaluation domains of Academic Achievement, Organizational Capacity, and Financial Sustainability in the charters they currently operate. These charter managers continually reapply for more schools despite their substandard performances. (All charter school evaluations and new charter school applications can be viewed on the Charter School page of the District website.)

Chao, in answer to a question from Board Member Streater, admitted that charter operators’ decisions to delay signing charter agreements does create problems.  Chao said that it is a hindrance to the process and is not helpful with fully understanding how students are served.

Board Member Salley asked whether the record of an existing operator is considered when they apply for an additional school. Chao replied that the record was considered and is part of the application. Thompson brought up questions about the Bluford/Daroff application indicating concerns about the Daroff building reportedly unfit for occupancy.  Wilkerson shut down her questions stating that hearings will be held and this isn’t the correct time to discuss.  It was disappointing that Thompson did not push back for discussion now because this was on the agenda for this meeting and bodes to be a complicated issue.  Fix Lopez pointed out that both Bluford and Daroff were Renaissance schools and therefore the buildings–which the applicants want to take over–belong to the District.  Chao concurred. That is, former Renaissance charters that serve students in a defined catchment area, would become another citywide charter.

Board Needs an Acoustics Upgrade
The Board took an unscheduled recess, from 5:03 to 5:24, in an attempt to resolve ongoing technical issues after discovering that Thompson could not hear what was going on in the 440 auditorium. Sign Language interpreters on the screen also appeared at times to be struggling to hear.  Some members of the public viewing remotely noted that some mics had a fade in/fade out quality even after the recess.  Consistently hearing all Board participants remains a challenge.  Making every effort to speak directly into the mic is a crucial component of community engagement.  APPS members have raised issues about the bad acoustics for many months, most recently at the last Policy Committee meeting.

Public Asks Questions but Gets Few Answers
Four APPS members spoke in person and two submitted written testimony.  (All testimonies can be viewed on the APPS website.) 

Another ironic twist in light of this night’s G&G (Guardrail 1 Safe and Supportive School Environment), as well as the proposed hold on facilities planning, was the testimony from a Lea Elementary parent who vividly described the unsafe and unsanitary conditions of the bathrooms at this school.  This parent came armed with photos and suggestions for improvement.  Will Lea have to wait for the FPP process to resume, or will the Board take action now?  

At the conclusion of the public speakers, APPS’ co-founder Lisa Haver came to the mic to state for the record APPS’ objection to the Board’s violation of the Sunshine Act in its voting for charter renewal Items 23 and 24. The Board failed–as it does with every charter item–to include the full text.  At some point after the meeting the text is inserted.  The Sunshine Act stipulates that the full text of every item voted on must be included at the time of the vote otherwise it is considered a vote taken in secret.  As usual, the Board failed  to respond.  

Can Schools Be “On Track” without Safe Conditions? 
The Board analyzed Guardrail 1, Safe and Supportive School Environments, for about an hour and 15 minutes.  In summary, four “indicators” were examined in this data analysis: Guardrail 1.1, number of surveys returned; Guardrail 1.2.1, percentage of buildings that are lead safe; Guardrail 1.2.2, number of hydration stations; and Guardrail 1.3, number of buildings with at least two Full Time Equivalent (FTE) trauma staff for every 500 students. The data was not on track for Indicator 1.1 but was on track for the other three indicators. 

Notable by their absence in this discussion were the conditions not included by the Board in this data analysis, such as serious incident reports and suspensions.  Several Board members alluded to the situation at Dobbins in the context of safe buildings. G&G facilitators Board Member Danzy and Board Vice-President Egea-Hinton stated that the purpose of G&G is to present general data analysis and not single out any individual schools.  Wilkerson did note that she was hearing a whole other set of conversations that may be needed, but no Board action or recommendation happened to indicate if, when, or how other important safety indicators may be added to this Guardrail.  The question remains, if the Board failed to discuss the chaos at Dobbins as reported in the Inquirer during the Superintendent’s report, and barely discussed during G&G, when will they?  How is the public to gain assurances of appropriate District action to address this dangerous situation?

Board Takes Secret Votes on Charter Renewals
Items 2 and 5: Passed unanimously.   

Item 3:  Passed 6-3, with Board Members Salley, Streater and Thompson abstaining without explanation.   

Item 4:  Withdrawn by staff prior to the meeting. 

Item 23:  Passed unanimously. Board voted to approve a charter agreement that was not posted publicly. 

Item 24:  Passed unanimously. Board voted to approve a charter agreement that was not posted publicly. 

Item 16: Passed unanimously.  

Board Member Lam asked questions about this item, although it was hard to hear her.  Temple’s Katz School of Medicine will provide trauma support with this item.  District administrators said that evaluation of this work indicated success by improving student lateness and reducing minor student incident reports.  A consideration not discussed by the Board is the impact of District staff assigned to school buildings who forge relationships with students and families; relationships that can carry across years.  This is one more example of outsourcing–-here today and gone tomorrow. 

Items 1, 6-12, 14, 15, 17-22:  Passed unanimously.  

Item 13:  Passed 8-1, Thompson abstained without explanation.

Total spent on non-charter Action Items at this meeting:  $11,116,674.

Projected cost for 5-year retroactive renewal for Friere Charter, based on district quarterly budget: $81, 756, 295
Projected cost for 5-year renewal for Alliance for Progress Charter, based on district quarterly budget:   $40, 871, 780
Projected cost for 5-year renewal for Southwest Leadership Academy, approved by Board in October: $45, 502, 958 
TOTAL projected allotments for October and November renewals:  $290, 759, 108

The meeting adjourned at 7:50 p.m.