Testimony of Diane Payne to the BOE, July 30, 2020

Dear BOE President Wilkerson and fellow Board Members,

I wish to begin by addressing the same concerns I shared last week regarding the twenty-six Action Items on the agenda. There is NO information or presentation on how these items are relevant and necessary in this time of crisis. For instance, Action Item 12 is a twelve-million-dollar expenditure for books and learning aids with no text to describe how this is supportive of learning in either the digital or hybrid learning scenarios we are currently navigating. I am reproducing my entire list of concerns at the conclusion but once again I want to reiterate that the Board should be voting on essential business and should make sure the public understands the underpinning of each Item’s essentiality. If you truly care about public trust and transparency, you should want public “buy-in” of how you spend money.

I sent a separate letter to the Board’s contact page regarding the public speaking portion of the meetings. I wish to restate here that a full screen countdown clock as the only visible view for the public during the speaker’s portion of the meeting is at best insensitive to the public’s need to feel included and at worst a violation of the spirit or intent of the PA Sunshine Act. This Act defines the public’s right to have a meaningful role when officials conduct governmental business. We are not part of the meeting when you disappear behind a giant countdown clock. It should be quite easy to maintain your screen presence while reserving one block to a small countdown clock. So, once again, I’m requesting that you make this a more participatory meeting by maintaining screen presence throughout the meeting.

After the overwhelming and unified calls from just about every sector of the school community against the reopening plan, Superintendent Hite presented a revised version. I am heartened to see the school year will begin with a system wide remote platform. Concerns regarding the plan remain. It indicates that after the first quarter school will resume as a hybrid plan contingent on health officials’ approval. Last Thursday, many members of the public participating in the meeting were appalled at Dr. Farley’s willingness to ignore portions of health concerns while selling the original reopening plan. He reported publicly, within the time frame of this meeting, that ventilation was a concern for in-person restaurants, COVID was on the rise, and that children are at risk. Yet he unashamedly “sold” the hybrid plan without concern for the safety of our students, staff, and their families. This kind of public health endorsement is not going to generate buy-in for a November hybrid plan.

The Digital Academy is disappeared for the moment but if November brings a hybrid plan will it again be on the table? If so, there are still unanswered questions about students maintaining continuity with their home school as well as how this will affect staff assignments at home schools. One of thebeautiful outcomes of the July 23rd meeting was the overwhelming support and love expressed for our neighborhood schools. There are no guarantees in this plan for exactly how neighborhood schools will be affected by a hybrid offering. Fully answering this question is crucial to any hybrid plan.

So many questions remain around the vulnerable populations of students only to find they were barely addressed in this plan. Special education students, ELL students, homeless students, and internet challenged students had at best a generic line in the plan. It is extremely telling that the document lists a COVID team of 51 including administrators, principals, 3 parents but NO TEACHERS. There are not even headings in the Table of Contents for these vulnerable populations. A fully remote start to the year should not mean that we do not talk about ways to address these students’ needs. Parents and teachers of those students must be at that table.

Finally, trust. The SDP has suffered from self-inflicted credibility wounds. Stakeholders have good reason to not trust or believe that the District will act in good faith, do what they present in plans and PowerPoints, or be forthright and honest in what they say and do. The Philadelphia community still hurts from 23 school closures. Our school libraries were placed on the chopping block and a shuttered or repurposed library is a slap to school communities. A staff member had to come down with mesothelioma even then District handling of asbestos abatement remained controversial. For four years, dedicated teachers have decried the need for the District to institute policy mandating racially appropriate curriculum and anti-racism training but it took the murder of George Floyd and public outcry to begin to move the SDP needle. For several years, advocates have pushed for mandated District policy to register seniors to vote but the response is verbal agreements with still no policy in place. Vaccination mandates should not be controversial but administrative failures and doublespeak caused it to be a flash point for an extended time. The System of Great Schools (with it’s never ending name changes) identifies and punishes low performing schools leaving communities reeling and administrators off to the next project. The CSPR hangs over the head of the entire city as we wait for axes to fall and schools to close. Public engagement and transparency are Board objectives yet you eliminate that committee with no additional plan in place except the vague statement that it is the overall Board’s duty.

This is an incomplete list of broken trust issues some of which can result in health problems and/or death. No plan to reopen schools should take any other step forward without robust teacher, parent, and student engagement from start to finish. All questions should be answered.

Action Items reprinted from July 23rd written testimony.
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:
Why isn’t Comcast (and Verizon) fully and completely stepping up to the plate at this critical time?
Why are businesses again offering their corporate expertise around our educational issues?
Why are these “big-hearted donors” not allowing the District to direct where and how their donations are used?