Transition Team Offers Familiar Promises

Ears on the Board of Education: October 20, 2022

by Diane Payne

The Transition Team appointed by Superintendent Tony Watlington and the consulting firm of Shawn Joseph and Associates presented its findings, compiled in a 29-page, multi-color pamphlet. Some of Watlington’s actions during his heralded “First 100 Days”  have raised concerns rather than hope for many, especially his failure to embrace a plan rooted in education research of the whole child in favor of retaining the status quo of privatization, outsourcing and standardized testing. Most jarring is Watlington’s demotion of parents and community members from that of stakeholders in the common good of public education to “customers”.  Watlington has even created a new administrative position, “Chief of Communications and Customer Service”; he hired Alexandra Coppadge to fill it.  This disrespectful action reveals Watlington’s lack of understanding of the role of parents, educators, students and community members as members of school communities advocating for safe and healthy schools; he sees them as consumers buying a product, which relegates educators to the status of store managers and students to commodities.   

Board Should Honor Our Fallen Students
Seven members of the Board attended in person; Cecelia Thompson again attended remotely, as did Reginald Streater, who is out of town.  Student representative Love Speech attended remotely; student representative Sophia Roach was absent.  Mallory Fix Lopez encouraged members of the public to register to vote before the October 24 deadline. She said that the Board is encouraging high school seniors to register before the October 24th deadline and asking first-time student voters to tag the Board and share their experience on social media. Fix Lopez’s remarks made the Board’s failure to pass an established policy to encourage student voting, even after sustained advocacy from students and educators, that much more puzzling.

Cecelia Thompson presented her Parent and Community Advisory report, predictably lacking in news or analysis of substance. There was no indication that this committee is engaged with the Board or the administration in any meaningful way.  Without identifying them, she stated that “some” members served on the transition team and “some” members testified at Board meetings. Thompson enumerated the topics for which the committee has provided comments such as gun violence but gave no indication  of whether their advocacy has led to any specific actions or policies. 

Student Representative Roach presented the student report, then asked the Board to vote Yes on Action Items 8 and 9, both of which deal with student homelessness.

Noticeably absent from President Wilkerson’s remarks was any public acknowledgement of the September 27th fatal shooting of Philadelphia student Nicolas Elizalde outside of Roxborough High School.  APPS members have called on the Board to remember the students lost to gun violence each month, to no avail.  It is difficult to understand why the Board will not take a moment to honor those students and to offer sympathy to their families and school communities.

Transition Team Report Offers Familiar Promises
Watlington’s transition team’s five committees—Student Achievement, Operations, Anti-Racist District Culture, Community Engagement and Communication, Enriching and Well-Rounded School Experiences—made both short- and long-term recommendations. Those recommendations will inform Watlington’s 5-year plan, expected to be released in Spring 2023. One short-term recommendation under Community Engagement: “Co-create, resource, and drive accountability to a customer service model.”  One long-term recommendation from the Community Engagement committee:Dramatically expand organization capacity to strengthen engagement, communication, and storytelling.”  These are some examples of the jargon and corporate-speak riddled throughout the report. 

Following the transition team presentation, Watlington summarized Phase 1 and 2.  He cited four “buckets” that emerged from the listening sessions: internal & external communication, poor customer service, facility challenges, and missing the academic mark. Were Watlington and his consultants counting the number of times they heard the term “customer service” in the listening sessions–or were they actually listening?  Many would agree the District falls short at community engagement, communication, and transparency.  But APPS members attended most  of the listening sessions and we heard not one participant referred to themself as a “customer”.  No one requested a customer service department.  This rhetoric is the language of corporate reformers lobbying for more outsourcing.  Our students and families are people with diverse relationship needs, not shoppers or consumers.  

Fix Lopez enthusiastically endorsed the Transition Team Report, then asked Watlington, “How can we manage our expectations?”  Almost all of the Board members took the opportunity to make speeches and to ask Watlington vague and pandering questions such as how the Board can support the plan. Watlington’s response was to keep following the Goals and Guardrails.  

Many of those who have followed the District’s administrations over the years and decades recognized the promises of The Next Big Idea—while generations  of children languish in crumbling facilities with fewer resources.  If the “big ideas” were rooted in the research of public education rather than the jargon of reform it would give hope to those in the fight for better schools.  What remains debilitating is the continued reliance on the failed experiment of reform.  Remember that Trump Administration Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos also used the term “customer service”.  

The fact that the Transition Team and its report were overseen by Shawn Joseph & Associates injected a measure of skepticism into the proceedings.  

In addition, Watlington’s repeated claims to be listening to parents and students seemed empty after his administration’s continuation of the disruptive and harmful practice of leveling, now re-branded  “Enrollment-Driven Resource Review”. Watlington alluded in a recent press conference to filling the school library void, but offered little beyond resurrecting a possible partnership with the Free Library– another example of deflection masquerading as action. Has Watlington read the news stories about the public libraries problems with understaffing and closures?   APPS’ Deborah Grill testified that using public libraries as a short-term substitute is not a real or sustainable option. Grill told the Board, “The District actually tried this avenue in 2014. The program was limited to Kindergarten to third-grade students in ten schools, for one day a week. If those schools had had a school librarian familiar with curriculum and the needs of teachers and students, the library would have benefited all students on a daily basis.” 

Just before public speakers were called up, Wilkerson, without explanation, called for a motion to recess in order to meet in a private executive session.  When the Board returned and resumed the meeting, Wilkerson noted that the executive session was to discuss confidential charter school matters. But General Counsel Lynn Rauch had announced at the meeting’s opening that the Board had already discussed charter business in executive session earlier that day.  The surprise executive session did provide the opportunity for many of the meeting participants, including members of the transition team, to leave without attracting attention before the public speakers testified. 

Board Shrouds Charter Business in Secrecy 
Wilkerson called up Acting Chief of Charter Schools Peng Chao to report on the four renewal items on the agenda just prior to the voting and after the public speakers, thus depriving the public of an opportunity to question or comment on any of the charter transactions.  Streater asked a question on the record that was almost certainly raised in executive session:  Does a “No” vote on a charter renewal automatically begin a non-renewal process?  Counsel Lynn Rauch replied that it did not.  The Board subsequently voted “No” on three of the four renewals–First Philadelphia Prep, Tacony Academy, and Edmunds Renaissance Charter.  The CSO had recommended 5-year renewals for the first two; it made no recommendation for Edmunds.  What is the Board’s rationale for not explaining to the public this unprecedented move?  

Charter schools claim to be public schools but the public is shut out of every step of the renewal process–from negotiating to voting.  APPS continues to ask why this Board, unlike others in the state, refuses to hold public renewal hearings, opting instead for private negotiations with charter officials. At this meeting, Lisa Haver pointed out in her testimony that none of the four charter renewals on the agenda included their projected costs. The Board voted four months ago to move forward with the non-renewal of Laboratory Charter School; legal hearings were scheduled to begin in early October. The hearings were postponed one week, then another, without explanation. Chao informed the Board that the hearings had been canceled,  that the non-renewal was set aside, and that the CSO was now recommending a 1-year renewal (actually 2) with conditions.  Chao admitted that there had been no improvement or change of any kind in the past four months, but that the charter school was being given “more time”.  Who made this decision?  The Board itself controls the Charter Schools Office,  the only department in the district not under direct control of the superintendent. The Board, not Chao or the CSO, placed this item on the agenda.  It is hard not to come to the conclusion that political pressure had been placed on the Board to reverse Laboratory’s non-renewal. 

Action Items 4, 11, 20: Withdrawn by staff prior to the meeting.
Action Item 20’s proposed $5 million contract for cell phone pouches had generated controversy over the past week.

Action Items 1,2,3, and 5: Passed unanimously

Before the charter votes, Lisa Haver came to the mic to state APPS’ formal objection to the Board’s voting on items that do not contain the content of the renewal agreement. That constitutes a vote taken in secret.

Item 22, Laboratory Charter School renewal:  Passed 6-3, with Danzy, Lam and Salley dissenting. 

Item 23, First Preparatory Charter School 5-year renewal:  Failed 9-0.

Item 24, Tacony Academy Charter School 5-year renewal: Failed 9-0

Item 25. String Theory at Edmunds Charter School 5-year renewal:  Failed 9-1, Lam dissenting. 

Item 8: Passed 8-1, Thompson abstained due to conflict. 

Items 10 and 15:  Passed unanimously.
The Board discussion on Item 15 for tele-therapy speech services illustrated a concern APPS has expressed when Board President Wilkerson alleges, as justification for the speaker cap of 30, that members of the public who are not permitted on the speakers list can send in written remarks as an adequate substitution.  APPS has raised the question several times about how the public can know that all members of the Board are actually reading the written testimony.  We got our answer at this meeting.  Thompson questioned whether the certified speech therapists in the district, who have testified previously against tele-therapy services, have weighed in on the issue. It appeared that Thompson, for one, did not read the written testimony sent in before the meeting–signed by forty-eight district speech professionals–stating their opinion and outlining their recommendations in the matter. The fact that none of the other Board members informed Thompson of this indicates that they didn’t read it either.  Fix Lopez talked about the importance of “hearing from the district professionals”—seemingly unaware that in fact they had that very day and that it was part of the public record.   

Items 13, 14, 17, 18, 19: Passed unanimously.

Items 1, 6, 7, 9, 12, 21:  Passed unanimously.

The Action Meeting adjourned at 8:06.  The Intermediate Unit meeting convened; the Board voted unanimously to pass the one I U item. 
The Board approved $16,492,259 in spending at this Action Meeting. In addition, the projected cost of the 2-year Lab renewal is $47,301,032, based on figures in the District’s reported vendor allotments in the January 2022-March 2022 quarterly vendor report.