Testimony of Diane Payne to the BOE, July 23, 2020

I would like to begin by acknowledging that these are incredibly difficult times for any district to navigate and particularly for poor, large, urban districts like ours. COVID is on the rise (alarming trends in ever-increasing states), our schools cannot guarantee basic safety guidelines on countless necessary levels, students will be crisscrossing the city on both SEPTA and school buses. This is not a desired option BUT schools must not open! (If the BOE cannot safely conduct Action Meetings in a face-to-face manner, how can you possibly expect schools to open?) It is a reoccurring complaint; the District and the Board fails to meaningfully engage staff, students, and parents. There is an extraordinary number of unanswered questions that despite numerous town halls and surveys remain unanswered.
Adding to community disengagement and the very real danger inherent in a hybrid reopening plan, this Board meeting is rooted in a lack of reality. Although this meeting was on the calendar well in advance of the July 23rd date, the Board failed to release any agenda until days before the meeting once again violating the PA Sunshine Act lawsuit settlement with APPS that promises a two-week posting.
Examination of this agenda leaves one wondering if we are in fact in the middle of a pandemic where infections are on the rise across the country with some states entering emergency territory. An array of Action Items that indicate the District is not grounded in reality include:

A.I. 1 – Eliminating the Community Engagement Committee with NO ADDITIONAL COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT IN PLACE.
A.I. 4 – Dell Grant for Student-Teacher Pathways. Once again, the donor savior gets to choose how to allocate funds. The SDP should be telling Dell how they will spend their grant money not the other way around.
A.I. 5 – Personnel Hire for Deputy Specialized Services $150,000. Isn’t there an administration hiring freeze?
A.I. 11 – Paul Nedeau consulting for “clear and consistent communication” during COVID. Otherwise known as a “spin doctor”?
A.I. 12 – Textbook and instructional materials aids for $12 million! Are these materials that were needed prior to the pandemic outbreak? Because if so, how have our needs changed? Does this still make sense?
A.I. 16 – Behavioral Health (multiple contract approvals) for $60 million. There was no Committee meeting this month to explain this expenditure. The Action Item text gives very little information. Without context, description, or District presentation, the public is left in the dark about a huge expenditure.
A.I. 18 – Athletic reopening plan – this gave no specific information on how this will be accomplished safely. What does social distance, mask-wearing, and cleaning look like for each sport? Will each sport return? How will the facilities be safely cleaned?
A.I. 20 – Partners in School Innovation $265,000 for professional development. It is hard to even find the words for this one. There is nothing normal about what we are facing yet the Hite administration plows forward with a professional development plan that in no way reflects the uncertain times we face. Equally concerning is the continued outsourcing to questionable companies. A quick look at this Partners in School Innovation’s website finds a National Team with virtually NO TEACHING EXPERIENCE. Of the 13 people listed on their team – 2 indicate limited teaching (one for 2 years and one not specific). It is interesting to note that the CEO of this company worked in Prince George’s County School District as the Executive Director of the Opportunity Zone. Is there any connection to Superintendent Hite? Has this been asked?
A.I. 25 – Donation from Accenture for COVID related support – $63,000
A.I. 26 – Donation from Ernest & Young for COVID related support – $345,000.

Both 25 and 26 were Comcast referrals to the SDP. Exactly how these corporate entities are assisting the District was hard to decipher in the wording of these Items. Some questions to consider for both of these Items:
1. Why isn’t Comcast (and Verizon) fully and completely stepping up to the plate at this critical time?
2. Why are businesses again offering their corporate expertise around our educational issues?
3. Why are these “big-hearted donors” not allowing the District to direct where and how their donations are used?

Again, I urge the District to commit to the planning and needs of a fully remote reopening. It is not what anyone wants but neither is this pandemic. Do not wait for a District staff, student, or family member death to make this decision.