Ears on the Board of Education: October 28, 2021
by Diane Payne
Three days before a possible SEPTA strike, Superintendent Hite announced that schools would be open as they have been this year — that is, there would be no alternative virtual instruction. Hite presented no plan to help parents get students to school. Fortunately, SEPTA operators have tentatively agreed to a new contract, and a strike has been averted. Was Hite’s non-plan designed to put more pressure on SEPTA or its unions to settle? Fortunately, we don’t have to find out — this time. But the Board and Hite must develop a plan for alternative education in the case of transportation strikes, natural disasters, weather emergencies, and of course, a spike in COVID cases.
President Joyce Wilkerson, Vice-president Leticia Egea-Hinton, Board Members Mallory Fix Lopez and Lisa Salley attended in person. Attending virtually were Julia Danzy, Reginald Streater, Cecelia Thompson and Maria McColgan — who, despite being an outspoken advocate since last year for a return to in-person learning for students and staff, has yet to attend a hybrid Board meeting in person. (Mayor Kenney has not begun the process of filling the seat left vacant when Angela McIver resigned in July.)
Dear President Wilkerson and Members of the Board,
At every remote meeting held by the Board, a significant portion of the meeting displays only a full-screen digital clock. Public viewers are not able to see any member of the Board or the administration. The public did not see the Board for over seven hours at the first session of the July Action Meeting.
A meeting at which the public is not able to see the Board, especially for hours at a time, cannot be considered a true public meeting.
We request that you make the screen include all members of the Board and Dr. Hite, along with any administrator speaking, for the entirety of the meeting. The digital clock, during public speaking, can take up one square on the screen.
If you convene the second session of the Action Meeting with the same format, we request that you explain at the outset of the session why the present technology prevents you from being seen.
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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