Secret Deals and Speaker Suppression

Ears on the Board of Education: November 18, 2021
by Diane Payne

The Board practices speaker suppression in many ways. They abolished the committees that offered the school community a way to engage in real dialogue and deliberation. They gutted the official speaker policy, changing the rules from month to month and meeting to meeting. Those are obvious methods. But there are other ways to silence people. One is to add official items to the agenda after the sign-up window has closed, such as the charter renewals, so that only charter company representatives have a chance to be heard. Another is to add staff presentations to the agenda the day of the meeting, making it impossible for people to have a chance to comment or question. The Board does not post staff presentations before or even during the meeting, with the same results. And with only two minutes to speak, it is difficult if not impossible for people to address their issue and also ask a question about information presented during the meeting.  Of the thirty speakers allowed to sign up, eleven did not show up. That meant the Board only had to listen to nineteen adult speakers, silencing an unknown number of speakers (including three APPS members who were barred this month), disenfranchising the public, undermining democracy, and shielding themselves from accountability.  

Present–or Not? 

Hours of invisibility, which could have been remedied with a box on the screen displaying President Wilkerson’s name, gave the impression that she was not present for most of the five-hour meeting. That is not a trivial matter, as Board members are not permitted to vote on official items if they are not present for most of the meeting. Vice President Egea-Hinton, who presided, Board Members Mallory Fix Lopez and Maria McColgan, attended in person. Julia Danzy,  Lisa Salley, Reginald Streater, Cecelia Thompson, and Wilkerson attended virtually. The Board continues its  “do as I say but not as I do” behavior at these meetings.  Students and staff are expected to be 100% in person but Board members still get to choose to be present or to stay home. 

Egea-Hinton opened the meeting with general remarks about the search for a new superintendent. She mentioned the 11-member advisory committee that will meet in the later stages of the selection, but gave no details on how the Board will be selecting that committee or how the public will be able to engage with that committee.  APPS members have asked that question at several of the listening sessions. Karel Kilimnik asked about it again during her testimony, but the Board again gave no answer.  Who is selecting the advisory council members?  How are they being selected? The Board keeps the public in the dark while claiming to be listening.  

Committee “Report” 

During her 48-second report on the 3-hour November 4 meeting, Committee Chair Maria McColgan did not mention the policy that took up more time to deliberate upon than any other on the agenda, and one that has garnered public attention and headlines:  Policy 911. The Board’s proposed changes to that policy would enact, in Fix Lopez’s words, a “gag order” on District employees.  The Board proposes to prohibit any District employee from speaking to reporters without express written permission from the Hite administration.  APPS members and others, including union leaders and elected officials, have sounded the alarm on this dangerous policy. But McColgan didn’t mention it, nor did any other member of the Board. What is the point of a report that doesn’t mention the most important issue discussed–one that will further silence District educators? 

At a November City Council hearing with Board Members and District officials, when asked about Policy 911, Hite led Councilmembers to believe that the proposed amendments to the existing policy were minor changes. In reality, the new language would prohibit district staff from exposing dangerous building conditions or raising other issues that affect children, such as lack of recess and overtesting. Should Policy 911 be enacted, all opinion pieces by teachers and  District staff would have to be submitted to District administration for approval.  

McColgan also failed to report on the extensive discussion on the need to enact a policy for student voter registration.  APPS members Ilene Poses and Coleman Poses testified on the need for this policy at the November 4 meeting, as did  Central teacher and Philly Youth Vote organizer Tom Quinn, who  brought this issue to the Board over two years ago.  Fix Lopez, taking up advocacy for student voter registration after the resignation of Angela McIver, raised the issue on November 4. Even if the Board moves forward on this, no policy would be placed before the Board until April 2022, not February as had been scheduled. Seems the Policy Committee now meets twice a year, not four times. No announcement was made, or vote taken.  Only because Lisa Haver asked after the meeting adjourned did we find out.  Why did McColgan omit the discussion about student registration from her report? Why is the Board reluctant to implement what seems to be a no-brainer of a policy? Is the Mayor against registering young Philadelphians to vote in public elections? 

Board Accepts Insufficient Information on Crucial Issues

Dr. Hite reported on the initiation earlier this month of a Covid Response Team (CRT) that will support and advise on all COVID-related cases.  This team will be available seven days a week between the hours of 7:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m. by phone or email.  All staff who test positive are now required to submit a form to this team.  However, a search of the District website fails to provide any information on CRT.  The email (coronavirusresponse@philasd.org) that Hite provided, came back “undeliverable” when tried after the meeting.  Searching on the district website for Coronavirus response team comes up empty.  A keyword search on the district website for Coronavirus Reporting yields an undated letter Hite sent to employees and volunteers with this same email.  It is unclear if this “response team” is actually accessible.  

Hite also noted that after passage of  a resolution in June, the District is now a welcoming sanctuary district within a sanctuary city and that his Action Plan now includes a section on how to respond to ICE in schools.  Advocacy groups such as Juntos have expressed concern about the implementation and training around this resolution.

Regarding staff shortages, Hite told the Board that the District’s current numbers mirror national trends. He cited a number of steps his administration will implement next month to lessen the shortages: signing bonuses for substitutes, teachers, nurses, secretaries, and bus drivers; a bonus for referring a bus driver candidate who gets hired; paid driver training; expanding part-time school climate staff to full-time staff with benefits; a central office deployment plan; removing hiring barriers to expand the labor pool.  No Board members asked about the specifics of those barriers, or why they were there in the first place. For example, why did the District replace full-time Non-teaching Assistants (NTAs) and replace them with part-time lunch aides? Why did Hite continue the elimination of school librarians? The District, under Hite, has forced principals to buy positions from the school’s budget in the name of “principal autonomy”.  Board members have exhibited little knowledge of District history, so they do not question this false narrative. 

Salley told Hite that she wanted to know actual numbers of shortages and which schools were being affected most.  She told Hite, more than once, that this is the third time she has asked for this information, but once again, Hite promised to have it ready next time. Hite finally acknowledged that about four or five schools were in crisis level due to shortages. Why does Salley continue to accept Hite’s stonewalling? Salley should give Hite a date by which he must deliver the information. 

Fix Lopez asked Hite about the new special-admit schools’ admission policy.  Students applying to special admit-schools will be given time during a designated school day to submit an online writing sample. The writing piece will be instantly graded–not by a person but via the computer program–and the student will receive an immediate notification of results.  No Board member questioned the efficacy–or morality–of allowing an algorithm to be an arbiter of a child’s efforts to get into a public school.  Nor did any Board member question the harm in having students receive upsetting news while sitting near their friends and fellow students. When parents raised this during public testimony, no Board member responded. 

Board members asked what will happen now to students who were admitted as middle-school students in middle/high schools such as Carver. Parents have testified that they were told if the children work hard and do well, they would be admitted to the high school. Chief of Student Supports Karen Lynch told the Board that is no longer true, that it was a school practice but never District policy. The obvious follow-up question, not asked, was whether Lynch knew that some schools were making false promises to students and their parents, and if so, why she did not shut that down. 

In response to a question from Danzy, Chief Talent Officer Larisa Shambaugh said that District retirements and resignations actually are not higher than normal.  She said that because we are such a large district, the pages of retirements/resignations each month are always extensive, but that there is no upward trend. Shambaugh told the Board that the real strain on the district is the higher number of absences due to COVID protocols and precautions.  Shambaugh said that it is hard to determine why staff leave the district because the District does not have a high rate of return on exit surveys.  No Board member questioned what, if anything, Shambaugh  is doing to improve that.  

Last-Minute Charter Presentation

The Board added this to the agenda just hours before the meeting. Acting Director of Charter Schools Peng Chao gave a  brief presentation notifying the Board that three  applications have been submitted for new charter schools: Aspira Bilingual Business, Finance, and Technology High School;  Aspira Eugenio Maria de Hostos Preparatory Charter School; and Philadelphia Entrepreneurial Development Academy Charter High School (PEDA).  Total Enrollment at scale for these three schools would be 2,775 students.  Until someone drives a stake into the heart of the Aspira operation, they will show up every year applying for yet another charter school. Both of these proposed schools have already been rejected by the Board–twice. New charter applications cost the District a significant amount of time and money–to process, analyze, write detailed evaluations, and to present those evaluations to the Board. Asira’s Renaissance charters have been consistently recommended for non-renewal due to substandard academics and shady organization, yet they are allowed to take advantage of the new charter application process. That is a testament to the unfairness and waste built into the PA Charter School Law.  PEDA is  proposing to move into the same location that the rejected High School of Health Sciences Leadership Charter School wanted to occupy in 2020.  The  District cannot afford and does not need any more charter schools. 

Parents, Community Demand Safe Schools

The Board closed its speaker sign-up window before they added two official items and one staff presentation to the agenda.  Two APPS members spoke in person and two members sent in written testimony in defense of public education. Three APPS members and an unknown number of other members of the District community were denied their democratic right to address this governing body, in violation of the PA State Sunshine Act. 

Member organizations of the Our City Our Schools Coalition (OCOS), including Parents United, Philadelphia Home and School Council, and Philly DSA, held a rally on the steps of 440 during the opening minutes of the Board meeting.  They demanded schools that are environmentally safe and secure for students and staff.  Four speakers addressed these issues in their testimony. Parents are tired of the district’s lack of transparency and engagement on issues relating to toxic schools and are making their demands known: information must be accessible to all school communities; the District’s facilities plan must have input from school community members; the District must formulate a plan to remediate toxins and reduce carbon emissions in all schools. 

Teacher and Racial Justice Organizing Committee Member Dana Carter took a stand against the Board’s speaker suppression when she testified, in person, about the dangers of enacting the amended Policy 911. She continued to speak even after her mic was cut off.  Board Counsel Lynn Rauch told Carter that she knew the rules when she signed up to speak. Carter replied that she did, but one has a duty “to disobey unjust laws”, and that the Board’s speaker rules are unjust and unconstitutional. 

Disrespect for Healthy Buildings Advocates 

Because APPS members again demanded that the Board respect the needs of parents and other public speakers, the Board followed its agenda and heard speakers before the 2-hour data analysis session. Goals and Guardrails, while replete with PowerPoints, charts, graphs, and jargon, never really deals with the real needs of students and school communities.  The Board examined Guardrail 1, “Welcoming and Supportive Schools”, which states that “all schools will be environmentally safe and clean and be spaces with inclusive climates that provide students with access to robust social, emotional and mental health supports.”  Indicators include measurements of lead and asbestos and supports for students’ mental and behavioral needs. 

There was a PowerPoint link on the Board’s online agenda, but it quickly became clear that the information reflected on screen was not fully available to the public. Most of the presentations from Hite and his staff members were missing, making it almost impossible to follow. The additional PowerPoints were added to the Board’s meeting materials the day after the meeting (another falsification of the public record).  

Jamie Banks from the Office of Prevention and Intervention Behavioral Health talked about ratios of climate staff to students and STEP (Support Team for Education Project), a partnership with the City to improve behavioral health needs for students.  Chief Safety Officer Kevin Bethel described the safety measures in schools including restorative practices, emergency management, rapid response, mentoring, school safety zones and more.

The presentation on asbestos took a disturbing turn when Hite brought on Valerie Fleming in her first appearance at a Board meeting. Hite identified her as a consultant with over 20 years experience in the field who has been working with the district for several months. Both Hite and Fleming made remarks dismissing the concerns brought by parents, educators, students and community advocates–represented by those who rallied and testified that day–about lead, asbestos and other toxins in schools.  Neither Hite nor Fleming directly identified any individuals, but their comments referring to parents, union officials and staff showed a lack of respect for the people fighting for safe buildings.  Hite and Fleming turned requests for transparency and engagement into a false argument of stakeholders pushing for actions that would violate federal and city laws.  Not a single Board member questioned Hite or Fleming’s repeated misstatements about advocates for safe and healthy school buildings.

This Action Meeting can be viewed on the Board website. All agenda materials can be found on the Meeting Materials Board page.

Board Makes Another Secret Deal with Charter Company 

Item 2, Acceptance of Donation from the Fund for the School District for Playground Repairs: passed unanimously.  Fix Lopez noted that it is unclear how money donated by The Fund for the School District can be equitably distributed and pointed out the problems inherent when some schools are able to raise money and other schools are not. APPS has raised the issue of private foundations and organizations making funding decisions that the Board should be making. Fix Lopez should pursue this issue. Public schools are not charities to be selectively funded by private philanthropies.

Items 1,3,4,9-11, 14-16, 20: Passed unanimously.
Items 5, 6, 8: Passed unanimously. 
Item 7:  Withdrawn by staff prior to meeting. 
Item 12: Passed unanimously. 
Action Item 13: Withdrawn by staff prior to meeting.
Item 17:  Passed unanimously.

Action Item 18, Universal Audenried Charter School, Exercise of Surrender of Charter  Agreement: postponed by a vote of 7-1, with Fix Lopez dissenting. Board member Streater made a motion to postpone the vote on this item, which proposed a non-renewal on Audenried’s charter. He read a statement that the Universal Audenried’s Board had agreed to sign a new 5-year charter agreement with conditions stipulated by the Charter School Office (CSO), including a surrender clause if those conditions are not met. What Streater failed to mention is that Universal already had agreed to a surrender clause two years ago, and according to the current item, had failed to meet the conditions agreed to by Universal at that time. Rather than stand up for the students in a school that has not met standards since Universal took it over, the Board caved once again. 

The Board, following the lead of the SRC, will approve yet another agreement with conditions and a surrender clause, which the Board has allowed Universal to ignore, even rewarding them with another 5-year renewal.  Universal has already publicly claimed that the Board’s surrender clauses are unfair and that they were somehow deceived into signing it. They have cited racial discrimination as the reason for the CSO’s non-renewal recommendation–not the fact that they have failed to meet basic standards since Universal took control of Audenried in 2011.

The SRC voted in 2016 to ignore its own Charter School Office recommendation for non-renewal after Universal failed to meet standards in all major categories.  The Board has continued to kick this can down the road, afraid to go up against the well-funded charter sector.  Once again, the District negotiated with Universal in secret, treating the charter school company as clients rather than operators of taxpayer-funded public schools.  The CSO and the Charter operator negotiated in secret and instead of moving forward with the long awaited charter surrender already in place, the Board motioned to postpone this vote until the December Action Meeting where a new signed agreement will be presented. Will the Board address Universal’s expulsion of 37 students–most without due process? Will they explain their decision to let Universal keep control of this neighborhood school despite their failure to produce proof of legally required background checks for faculty and staff? Is protection of Audenried students not a consideration for the Board? The Board’s approval of another five years for Universal represents the abdication of their responsibility to oversee all of Philadelphia’s schools and to make all schools accountable to their students and their community. 

Action Item 19, Universal Vare Charter School: this 5-year renewal passed 7-1, with Fix Lopez dissenting. Again, the fact that Universal has failed to meet standards since it took over Vare does not matter to the Board. The fact that Vare students are receiving a substandard education doesn’t factor into their decision.  Another secret negotiation between the CSO and the charter operator resulted in a signed agreement extending this failing school’s charter by 5 years.  As documented by APPS, Renaissance schools represent the District’s most expensive failure–by far.  

Because the Board did not reveal the terms of the agreement until the day after the meeting, they took this vote in secret. That represents a blatant violation of the PA Sunshine Act, a falsification of the public record,  and a betrayal of the public trust.  The Board’s evaluation shows that several Vare employees did not submit legally required background checks. Is student safety not a consideration when renewing a school? The Board also cited several violations of the school’s enrollment procedures as a Renaissance charter school. 

The meeting adjourned after 4 hours and 57 minutes.