Watlington Launches Administration with Questionable Contract

Ears on the Board of Education: June 23, 2022

by Diane Payne

Dr. Tony Watlington’s tenure as superintendent got off to an inauspicious start with his request to the Board, made before he was sworn in and granted by the Board without deliberation at its last meeting, for a major contract with Tennessee-based Joseph and Associates that came with a $450,000 price tag. The three-phase consulting project begins with the firm focusing on the “development and execution of a 100-day entry plan” for the new superintendent.  When the Board conducted its months-long superintendent search, with members of the community devoting significant time and effort, did they make their final choice with a caveat from the Board that Dr. Watlington was not prepared to take on the job as soon as he got here? Is this the message the Board and Dr. Watlington want to send the school communities—that their priority is not funding classrooms but outside consultants?  That a new superintendent wants to conduct business as usual? 

Phase One, from April 2022 to September 2022, has already begun. In Phase Two, from September 2022 to May November 2022, Joseph and Associates will assist Dr. Watlington in the “development and implementation of a transition team” to help him achieve the Board’s Goals and Guardrails.  But it is Phase Three that raises alarms:  the development of a “5-year strategic plan”. Those who remember the recommendations of the Boston Consulting Group know that this will almost certainly include the closing of neighborhood schools.  Any 5-year plan that will result in long-lasting changes in the District should be developed in public meetings overseen by the local Board of Education, not in the private boardrooms of an outside consulting company.  Following the strong reaction on social media to Chalkbeat’s story, Dr. Watlington briefly defended the contract in his opening remarks but did little to assuage the public’s concerns. None of the Board members addressed the issue, and because they denied all APPS members who signed up the opportunity to speak, we were not able to ask them about it. 

This consultant firm comes with much baggage.  Firm president Dr. Shawn Joseph was appointed Nashville’s superintendent in 2016. Just three years later, Nashville bought out Joseph’s contract in 2019 following several controversies including sexual harrassment, extremely low employee morale, and questionable spending practices. 

 Why did Philadelphia’s new superintendent lobby for a firm founded by a man with a troubled past who ended up costing Nashville millions of dollars in clean-up money?  How can Watlington defend this?  How would this first step engender any trust in the community—the one thing so lacking in this district? 

Two New Board Members to Begin Terms in July 

President Wilkerson announced the appointment of two new Board members, confirmed by City Council without deliberation earlier that day:  Sarah-Ashley Andrews and Chau Wing Lam. Not much is known about Andrews but she has little background in public education.  As noted in APPS’ May Ears on the Board, Lam, a charter parent, serves on the board of the Neubauer-controlled Pennsylvania Academy of School Leaders.  Both will officially join the Board at the June 30th public hearing.  

Once again, Wilkerson added items to the agenda during the meeting that were posted neither online nor on the hard copy available at the meeting:  a legislative update, a report from the Parent Advisory Council, and a Student Representative report.   BM Fix Lopez reported that the commonwealth’s budget has stalled in Harrisburg. She urged all constituents to call their state representatives to advocate for passage of the budget with Governor Wolf’s proposed education funding. She noted the state is sitting on the largest surplus it has had in years and that elected officials need to hear from voters.  She also noted that Board members met with Governor Wolf and Education Secretary Hagerty to discuss the  reduced number of graduates with teaching degrees. 

BM Thompson, who again attended remotely, gave another sketchy report on the PCAC (Parent and Community Advisory Council) activities.  Comments like “parents attended graduations and helped with proms” relegate the efforts of these members to an inconsequential token committee.  Thompson’s report focused on the efforts of one PCAC member who has taken on the unlikely mission of restoring junior high schools.  Apparently the Board and its staff had granted this PCAC member a private meeting to discuss the issue. Thompson gave no details about who participated or possible outcomes of this meeting; none of the other Board members asked for any.

Student Representative Rebecca Allen, serving at her last meeting,  thanked the Board for their support of her efforts and those of her fellow student Board Representative Armando Ortez to lift up student voices.  Best wishes to both of them. 
Six Board members attended.  Vice-president Egea-Hinton was absent. This meeting will be available to view on the District’s website and all meeting materials can be found on the materials page.

Brief Charter Report Precedes Board Vote

Chief Talent Officer Larisa Shambaugh, in her PowerPoint on staffing, reported that most positions are at the 90% filled rate.  Those below 90% include building engineers, Special Education Assistants, and Student Climate Staff.  Shambaugh highlighted incentives to hire and retain teaching staff, including a $2,500 stipend for coursework required for certification.  Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson reported that the City has lost its legal appeal from 2018 on business assessments, thus necessitating a District repayment of $30 million. The homestead savings and wage tax reduction is still pending; that may result in a $25 million loss for the District.

Acting Chief of Charter Schools Peng Chao gave a presentation and PowerPoint on the renewal evaluations completed on five more charter schools: Belmont Elementary Charter School, First Philadelphia Prep Charter School, Inquiry Charter School, Philadelphia Electrical and Technical Charter High School, and Tacony Academy Charter School.  Chao also gave updates on three schools slated for possible non-renewal: Laboratory Charter School, Southwest Leadership Academy Charter School, and Memphis Street Academy at Jones Charter School (a Renaissance charter).  The CSO’s  yearly evaluations, in addition to the five-year renewal evaluation, documents the failure of those schools to meet standards in all or most basic categories.  Questions from several Board members,  both after this presentation and later during the voting,  indicated a naivety about the privileges extended to charter operators and a lack of understanding around both the CSO’s evaluation procedures and the history of charter schools in the District.  Despite Chao’s explanation just minutes before, several Board members asked whether these schools had been notified about their status. Chao had made a point of clarifying that when any changes are made to the performance framework, charter operators are notified and given an opportunity to weigh in.

Actually, the Board, like the SRC before it, deals with charter operators and investors as business clients. We saw one example of that when the Board read in full letters that had just been delivered by charter operators and elected officials in defense of the charters facing possible non-renewal.  The rule enforced for everyone else—that written testimony must be sent 24 hours before the meeting—was suspended without explanation for the charter administrators. The biggest break the Board gives charter operators is to never hold any public meetings on charter renewals, thus sparing the highly-paid charter CEOs the task of having to explain their many violations to the public that funds them:  lack of due process for students, barriers to enrollment, one-digit School Performance outcomes, etc.  Questions about the charter operator’s awareness of problems came from Board members Salley, Thompson, Danzy, and Streater.  It was unclear why the same kind of questions were repeatedly asked by various Board members.  Did they not hear or understand Chao’s presentation?  

 Board Silences Charter Critics

The Board permitted 30 non-students to speak. Of those, 19 spoke on charter renewals. Of those 19, all spoke to defend charters and to urge the board to renew them despite their failure to meet standards.  All five APPS members who attempted to register to speak were shut out.  The Board also received written testimony from a number of politicians lobbying on behalf of the charter schools slated for non-renewal. Again Board members extended a sympathetic ear for the positions of the elected officials, some of whom benefit politically from their affiliation. Right-wing billionaire Jeffrey Yass has funded all of State Senator Anthony Williams’s campaigns over the past ten years.  When Williams spoke to the Board at this meeting, whose interests did he represent?  

Board Schedules Voting Until After Data Analysis 

Goals and Guardrails lasted almost 2 hours, from 7:22 until 9:10 PM.  The Board analyzed Guardrail 2, enriching and well rounded education through arts, athletics, and co-curricular activities. They concluded that schools are mostly on track for  this guardrail.  Smaller schools struggle the most with this guardrail due to the challenges of diverse offerings in smaller schools.  APPS again calls on the Board to reinstitute the Student Achievement Committee and place Goals and Guardrails in this committee for Board monitoring. It has no place in the Action Meeting.  The Board has a duty to make sure that the public can witness their voting and deliberation on official items that involve spending of hundreds of millions of public tax dollars.   

Meeting Extends into Friday Morning

Official voting began at 9:10 PM but was not over when the Board recessed 3 hours later at12:13 AM.  Something very wrong with the voting has been taking place these last few months.  The lack of understanding on the part of several Board members about the District’s big picture regarding spending priorities has become alarming, not to mention their disregard for the needs of parents, students and teachers who cannot watch 8-hour marathon meetings. Exposing that lack of understanding isn’t necessarily problematic.  What is problematic is that nothing seems to change.  For three hours, Board members quizzed District officials on various Action Items. At BM Salley’s request,  Action Items were grouped into categories: advertisement; assessment; facilities planning; technology; insurance, and utilities.  Board members still grappled with the reasoning and blueprint for how the money was being spent within these categories. In the end, all Items passed, most unanimously. No plan emerged to make Action Items more understandable,  nor any plan to identify how to make a cohesive “big picture” of District operations.  The biggest issue about Action Items, that Board members take secret votes on all charter items, was not raised by Salley or any Board member.

There were 92Action Items on this agenda. When President Wilkerson began the vote, she rattled off, too rapidly for anyone to write down, the various groupings of Action Item numbers being pulled out of the consent agenda. For those members of the public still watching, who wanted to fully understand what was happening, it was impossible to follow Wilkerson’s breakneck number-speak. This is a disservice to the public participants, especially to those who have hung in there for hours. 

Items 15 through17: Passed unanimously. 

Item 18: Passed 5-1, Thompson dissenting. 

Item 80: Passed unanimously.  This was the first of 10 charter school votes. Lisa Haver, on behalf of APPS members, stated an objection for the record to the Board’s ongoing violations of the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act as they began their secret votes on all charter school items. There was no text provided in any of the ten charter items. The Sunshine Act requires that the full text of all Items be publicly posted before voting.  Failure to do so constitutes a vote taken in secret. The Board flouts the law and holds the public in contempt. Once again, the Board inserted the full text of all items the next day, again falsifying the public record.   

Item 81 through Item 87: Passed unanimously; all charters renewed without deliberation. 

Item 88, non-renewal of Laboratory Charter School: Passed unanimously. Board discussion and questions indicated a lack of understanding of the charter school evaluation process and the duty of the Board as the authorizing agent to protect both children’s educational outcomes and safety as well as guard taxpayer money.  Board comments about feeling “torn” and asking if they should be considering the testimony of elected officials indicated a lack of deep knowledge of how the evaluation process works for the individual schools and the larger context of charter schools in the political landscape. None of the Board members who were torn about the interests of charter operators indicated any distress about blocking all speakers on the other side of the issue. Board members didn’t appear to understand that while some of the charter schools will close, the Renaissance schools will be returned to District control. 

Item 89, invoking surrender agreement signed by Memphis Street Charter School: Passed unanimously.  Board member Streater asked if Memphis Street experienced any “undue duress” to surrender.  What does Streater think would cause undue duress—having to abide by the rules that the charter operators themselves were engaged in establishing?  

Item 90, non-renewal of Southwest Leadership: Passed unanimously.  The Board discussion here again revealed a lack of understanding about their own responsibility, centering around the pitfall of the District approving an increase in enrollment for a school that had been performing adequately.  After this enrollment increase the school began its downward spiral. Wilkerson did not mention how enthusiastically she supported that expansion—against the wishes of the parents from a nearby neighborhood school.  (The Board had minutes before approved an enrollment expansion for Keystone Academy Charter.)

Item 2, Board policy changes:  Passed 5-1, Salley dissenting.
Board members Salley and Thompson both said the District agreed to amend Policy 313 to include other categories of employees besides just professional employees in the evaluation process.  Chief of Staff Alicia Prince insisted that state law requires the Board to have this policy for professional staff;  if the Board wants to expand it to non-professional staff that would require a new policy.  Thompson told Prince that the District staff ignored what the Board had said in previous meetings.Wilkerson indicated she had issues with Policy 313 because there were no procedures attached to it and she thought it should not be passed without procedures.  Further discussion around Policy 803 was unclear.  A motion was made and approved but it was not fully explained what policy the motion was referring to. 

Item 3:  Passed 5-1, Wilkerson abstaining.  Both Watlington and District Counsel Rauch praised Great City Schools when Salley questioned what we get for the membership dues. In what capacity is the General Counsel lobbying for the Board to approve contracts for certain organizations? 

Action Item 28, Change Orders: Passed 5-1, Thompson dissenting. 
Finally, some Board members have begun to question the unfettered monthly spending on Change Orders. Over the past year, APPS member Diane Payne asked about this every month both in written and oral testimony.  She asks how the money is being spent, the yearly running total, and the lack of information, month after month,  about who generates the change orders and why.  Board members are now questioning the same things.  Chief Operating Officer Reggie McNeil told the Board he would provide a presentation in August on the specifics of these change orders and how the District recoups money.  Board member Thompson told McNeil “this is the same explanation I got 11 years ago.” McNeil assured her that the information would be relevant this time. 

Item 92: Passed unanimously. This item approves a million-dollar expenditure to support student internet connectivity.  Board members Fix Lopez and Thompson both questioned this Item.  Thompson had requested that Otis Hackney, the City’s Chief Education Officer, report on this topic, but Wilkerson said he was unavailable for this meeting. (Did that also mean unavailable remotely?) Thompson asked that the vote be postponed until Hackney was available. COS Prince replied that they needed the vote to assure continuity of service.  She justified taking action now by telling the Board that this Item is only for one more year.  Fix Lopez said the District should not be in the business of providing connectivity for students and that this should be figured out by the city. 

Items 9-13: Passed unanimously.  (These items had been placed in the “advertising group”.) Both Salley and Thompson questioned the big picture for these expenses.  Thompson made a comment directly to Watlington that often District staff do not get back to Board members’ questions, asking him “can we start with people getting back to us?”  

Items 4, 58, 63-64:  Passed unanimously (assessments grouping).  Fix Lopez questioned whether teachers and principals were involved in selection of these assessments.  Chief of Evaluation Tonya Wolford indicated that the District staff would be involved once purchased because there is a “customized portion” to some of these products.  Fix Lopez seemed to accept that no teachers or principals had been involved in the selection of these materials.  Thompson asked for an update at the end  of the year on how it worked.  

Items 14, 27, 29, 30, 32, 35, 52, 79: Passed unanimously.  

Items 31, 33, 34 passed 5-1, Thompson dissenting. Fix Lopez abstained on one item. 

Items 24, 26, 36, 54, 73-78:  Passed unanimously (technology grouping).  Questions centered on understanding the bigger picture of technology in the District and when and how in-house tech can be utilized.

Items 21-22: Passed unanimously (insurance grouping).   

Action Items 23, 37-38, 43-44, 46-47, 50, 67:  Passed unanimously (utilities/accountants grouping).

Action Items 1, 5-8, 19-20, 25, 32, 39-42, 49-49,51, 53, 55-57, 59-62, 65-66, 68-72, 91 (remainder of consent agenda):  All passed.  Item 32 passed 4-2 (Thompson & Salley voted No).  All other items passed unanimously.  Thompson expressed doubts about the Building Trades MOU in Item 92.   

At this point, the Board recessed this action meeting until 3 PM on June 30 for the sole purpose of voting on Item 69 which had been tabled pending action by the mayor.  

This meeting ended–but did not adjourn– Friday at 12:13 AM.  Will this end up being a 10-hour meeting?