Ears on the Board of Education: May 26, 2022

by Diane Payne

For Dr. Hite’s last meeting as superintendent, Board President Joyce Wilkerson introduced a slideshow of his accomplishments through the decade.  (Those viewing remotely couldn’t hear so it may have had an audio component.) Mayor Kenney appeared in person to honor Hite.  Going-away tributes accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. Hite achieve some success on the surface, and in the interest of those holding the seats of political and financial power.   The budget, at least for now, is in  better shape.  But the people on the front lines can attest that those successes came at a price to students, staff, and families. 

Some  important history that we must remember about Dr. Hite’s tenure if we are to truly move forward: the closing of 23 neighborhood schools;  temporary layoffs of all counselors, secretaries and assistant principals in an ill-advised move to balance the budget, bringing back some of those positions but not all and leaving schools without adequate support staff for years; the elimination of more nursing positions;  joining the SRC in its illegal cancellation of the contract between the District and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers in a sneak-attack special meeting; the expansion of charter schools and the Renaissance charter program begun by Arlene Ackerman; increased corporate out-sourcing of District services; overseeing the near final death knell to school libraries and the elimination of all but a few Certified Teacher Librarians; the staffing of many high-tiered 440 administrative positions with non-Philadelphians rather than fostering local talent, thus further eroding the institutional knowledge of Philadelphia educators.  Hite should have resigned after his shocking mishandling of the Ben Franklin/SLA construction and relocation, in which students and staff were endangered on a daily basis, some actually hospitalized.  But Hite’s unflappable demeanor and ability to effectively navigate the political gauntlet served him well.  The forty minutes of congratulations and praise reflected the many times APPS reports have  noted the disconnect between what is happening on the ground and what is being presented at the Board meeting.  APPS hopes that  the next Superintendent will not be as revered by the political and power structure but rather admired by staff, students, and families.  

Board Must Respect Needs of Its Constituents 

This meeting adjourned at 11:42 PM—just 20 minutes shy of eight hours. Five Board members were present in the auditorium; Cecelia Thompson and Lisa Salley attended remotely. Student Representative Rebecca Allen attended in-person; Student Representative Armando Ortiz, attending his prom, was not in attendance.  This meeting, like previous ones, was marred by inconsistent audio throughout, for those attending both remotely and in person.    

Mayor Kenney’s Nominating Panel, after conducting all business in secret sessions, released its list of eight candidates to fill the vacancies left by Angela McIver and Maria McColgan. From that list Kenney has chosen twoSarah-Ashley Andrews and Chau Wing Lam.

The appointment of Ms. Lam effectively gives the Neubauer Foundation its representative on the Board of Education. Lam now works as project director for the Philadelphia Academy of School Leaders, whose CEO is former Aramark CEO Joseph Neubauer.  Neubauer has become a major corporate influence on District business, mostly through his ideological leadership training at PASL.  

These credentials foreshadow the maintenance of the status quo  for corporate reform. Defenders of public education will have to fight even harder. The Mayor exacerbates the disenfranchisement of Philadelphians by directing his Nominating Panel to meet in closed-door executive sessions—a blatant violation of the state’s Sunshine Act.  The Panel does not release the names of those applying to serve on a governmental body.  Almost no outreach is done to solicit public engagement, and the Panel caps the list at ten speakers, who can speak only at the performative sessions opening and closing the process. Clearly the Mayor does not want to hear from the parents, students, educators and community members whose daily lives are affected by decisions made by the Board. APPS has filed a formal Right to Know request with the Mayor’s office for copies of all the applications sent to the Panel. People have a right to know who the Panel rejected. We have also requested copies of the official minutes of all Panel meetings. 

Surprise Agenda Items Pop Up Again

Wilkerson acknowledged  the principals and teachers  who won this year’s Lindback Award but did not name them.  The ceremony honoring them was conducted  virtually.  Our question:  why is it so difficult to find the names of the teachers who won the award?  A search on the District’s website only finds the names of the principals who won. There is still no list of the winning teachers despite an email to the Chief of Schools and several twitter queries directed to the District. Is this how the Board honors teachers?  APPS members offer our congratulations and gratitude to all Lindback Award winners, in particular our friend and fellow defender of public education Kristin Luebbert

Wilkerson called on Cecelia Thompson for the Parent and Community Advisory Council (PCAC) report and on Mallory Fix Lopez for a legislative update—neither item on the agenda this month or in previous months. APPS has repeatedly asked the Board to comply with the Sunshine Act and post all items on the agenda before the meeting. The Board does not explain what exactly PCAC does, who listens to them beside Thompson, and what impact they have on Board decisions. PCAC meetings are not posted on the Board website and are not open to the general public.  Thompson’s remarks on the mass shooting in Uvalde, 39 minutes into the meeting, was the first mention of that tragedy. Thompson thanked the District”s Chief Safety Officer, Kevin Bethel, and Chief of Student Support Services Karyn Lynch for providing school communities with necessary supports in the wake of this horrific shooting.  Thompson then took the opportunity to again support the Hite administration’s recent surprise decision to install more metal detectors and to conduct random weapon searches of middle school students, saying that  this is “not criminalizing” our students.  Not everyone agrees that this is the best way to keep students and staff safe, as APPS member and former school counselor Lynda Rubin testified, but the administration once again made a decision with minimal public input. 

Salley Asks Hite for Answers on Staffing

In his final remarks, Hite offered “thoughts and prayers” to all those affected by the Uvalde shootings.  He noted that the District has supports for staff if they need it through the employee Assistance Program.  

Hite called on Chief Talent Officer Larisa Shambaugh for an update on staffing.  She reported that positions for principal, teacher, nurses, and student climate staff are all up while those for custodians and special ed assistants are down.  Fix Lopez asked for updates on building engineers for next month’s presentation; she also asked if the Talent Office was flexible in hiring and not cutting off possible qualified candidates because of a 1-point difference in testing.  Shambaugh assured her they were flexible.  Shambaugh then reported that the District has actually employed the services of an outside agency because of vacancies in her own office. 

Salley again argued that the “dots were not connected” in this report on the questions around strategic staffing at the seven to nine schools struggling in this area.  She asked why nothing was addressed in the report specific to these schools even after she has asked that question for months.  Hite responded that the administration approaches staffing at all schools as strategic, and he suggested that negative publicity might make it harder to staff some schools. Shambaugh then went on to repeat past month’s efforts to combat hiring deficiencies: early site selection; bonuses in hard to staff schools, early retirement notification bonuses.  The administration offered to share more with the Board “in executive session”. That would be yet another violation of the Sunshine Act.  The Sunshine Act allows for discussions about individual employees whose identities must be kept confidential, not for discussions around general staffing issues. The Board violates both the letter and spirit of this law on a regular basis. Once again, the public may be shut out of deliberations on an issue that we are entitled to witness and to comment on.  Salley told Shambaugh that  she was “grossly disappointed” in the Talent Office on this issue. 

Wilkerson then cut this discussion short, bringing up Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson to present the winners of the budget book artwork contest—another item left on the agenda. Students waiting for over an hour and a half  had begun to leave. What happened to placing all student presentations at the beginning of the meeting?  Northeast schools were well represented among the winners  with several from Wilson Middle School, Loesche Elementary School, and Propel Academy. Is the District making sure that all students across the District have this opportunity? 

(The full meeting can be viewed on the District website. PowerPoint presentations can be viewed on the District’s Meeting Materials page.)

More Surprise Presentations

CFO Monson reported on major budget changes including: a drop in expected real estate tax revenue; food services changes; $3 million to support extended use of facilities; escalating charter school costs.  Action Item 66 on this meeting agenda approves the School Year 22/23 budget as well as the amended budget for SY 21/22. 

Charter Schools Office Director Peng Chou presented information on 16 of the 22 charter schools in this year’s cohort applying for 5-year renewals. Up until just hours before the meeting, the agenda contained just the word “presentations”. The public had no idea that there would be a 12-page presentation on charter renewals and had no prior access to the presentation itself—effectively shutting out community comment on the most rapidly growing expenditure in the budget.  The Board will vote on all of these renewals at the June meeting. Thus anyone who spoke at the May action meeting may be barred from speaking in June on the charter renewals.  The CSO has recommended five schools for renewal and eight for renewal with conditions (which is meaningless since conditions are not enforced by the Board). In an unexplained move, the Board and the CSO have apparently decided not to actually recommend non-renewal, putting three schools that failed to meet all or most standards—Laboratory Charter, Memphis Street Charter and Southwest Leadership Academy Charter—in an undefined category. Is this more evidence of the political pressure exerted by charter lobbyists?  

Both Laboratory and Memphis Street were recommended for nonrenewal in 2017 after failing to meet basic standards;  the SRC renewed them anyway.  Southwest Academy does not meet standards in any of the three major categories: academic, organizational, and financial.  Memphis Street is a Renaissance charter whose management company promised to make “dramatic improvements” in the school but failed to do so in the ten years since the American Paradigm management company took over.  In fact, none of the Renaissance charters delivered on that promise. 

The Board continues the SRC practice of conducting all charter business behind closed doors and refusing to hold public hearings for 5-year renewals as other districts do. The Board also votes in secret on all charter items, again violating the Sunshine Act, not releasing the terms of the 5-year agreement until after they vote.   

Franklin Towne Charter Elementary, on the list of schools for renewal with conditions, has been sued for discrimination against students of color and students with disabilities. Franklin Towne consistently employs barriers to enrollment and student discipline policies that violate state regulations in order to cherry-pick their students.  Franklin Towne’s 80% white student body does not come close to representing the demographics of the district.  Yet the SRC and the Board have renewed and even expanded the Franklin Towne network, attaching meaningless conditions as cover. The ongoing lack of accountability within the charter school sector provides some families with a sense of “choice” as public money is diverted to privately managed schools. 

Speakers Demand Budget Equity 

Out of the 27 registered speakers, 3 were not on the line when called, reducing to 24 the number of public speakers the Board heard from.  Six members of APPS spoke in defense of public education.  APPS members and others had to wait until 4:00 p.m.Wednesday to be confirmed for speaking because of the Board’s continued speaker suppression policy of capping at 30 speakers.  Many testified about the lack of equity, again demanding that the District fund 5 core positions in every school: Assistant Principal, Climate Manager, Math Lead Teacher, Reading Lead Teacher, and Special Ed Compliance Officer. Some speakers advocated for bringing back school libraries.  Several parents argued against the District’s mask mandate.  As we saw in a previous meeting this year, Hite responded only to the anti-mask proponents. 

Goals and Guardrails

In this hour and a half session, the Board assessed Goal 4, the percentage of student who are proficient on all three state high school assessments—Algebra, Literature, and Biology Keystone exams—by the end of their 11th grade will grow from 26.1% in 8/2019 to 52% by 2/2026. They also examined Goal 5, the percentage of Career and Technical Education (CTE) students who pass an industry standards-based competency assessment by the end of their 12th grade will grow from 54.5% in 8/2019 to 80% in 8/2026.  Hite and a parade of District administrators employed a plethora of charts, graphs, and edu-jargon to conclude that the District is “off-track”  for both goals. Streater facilitated this part of the meeting and as it moved into his summary of what was said, the mic system became hard to hear for those attending via zoom.  In addition, laughing between Board members in the room began around this time and continued throughout the next portion of the meeting.  The Board did not let the public in on its private joke.

Board Concludes Voting Just Before Midnight

At  9:43 PM (5:43 video timestamp) the Board began voting on the 86 action items.. Those watching at home could not hear all of the comments made because the sound faded again.  For some reason, General Counsel Lynn Rauch laughed before calling each of the items near the end of the 2-hour voting session. She did not explain what was funny about any of the items.  At most meetings, a sizable number of Action Items are included in what Wilkerson refers to as the  “consent agenda”, items voted on in a bloc. In an unusual move, Board members—in most cases, Salley and Thompson—pulled out 36 items to be voted on separately.   They contended that the administration had failed to add needed explanation and context to each of these items.  Thompson, the parent of a special-needs son, has been an advocate for special needs students for years.  Many of her questions were informed by her first-hand experience navigating special education pitfalls.   After Board members pulled out the first six items for deliberation, Wilkerson interrupted to state that Board members should ask questions in “advance” (that is, out of the public eye) so that time is used “more efficiently”.  Salley countered Wilkerson’s obvious disapproval by reminding her that she (Salley) asks the same questions at every Board meeting, yet items still are put on the agenda without adequate information or context.  

Both Salley and Thompson questioned Item 17, Change Order for $512,022.   Wilkerson responded that there is additional information in the attachment to the Action Item.  What attachment? There was none on any publicly posted or distributed agenda.  Why does the public not see these attachments or even know about these attachments?  For every month of SY 20/21, APPS member Diane Payne has included in her testimony to the Board—both in person and in written testimony—a request to give context to change orders.  The change order Action Items, month after month, give just a generic listing of what projects and the total amount  without ever identifying the reason or who generated the order.   This context is important to understand if these changes are within industry expected standards or if a vendor is not delivering on contracted goods or services. 

Salley questioned Action Item 47, $40,000 contract with Council of Great City Schools  for Academic Program Review, actually asking for an audit on its outcomes.  We need more Board members raising questions about items funding corporate reform strategies. 

Item 3: Passed 6-1, Salley abstaining.   

This Item approved a wholesale acceptance of $700,000,000 in grants and donations.  There was no breakdown of who was paying for a program nor how much. APPS member Diane Payne testified earlier about this lack of transparency, stressing that the public has a right to know who is funding what and for how much.  Hite made a few vague remarks about it before the vote, saying that the Item was amended to apply only to grants relating to health.  The Board should clarify this before the next meeting and state clearly how much money is coming from each donor and for which programs. 

Items 1, 2, 11, 14, 15, 18, 22, 23, 26, 30, 31, 33,  37, 38, 39, 42, 43, 46, 40, 50, 59, 61, 62, 65, 68, 72-73: Passed unanimously.  

Items 7 through 10: Passed unanimously

Items 5, 13, 17, 19, 20, 21, 24, 25, 27, 28, 29, 40, 41, 44:  Passed unanimously. 

Item 32: Passed 6-1, Salley abstaining. 

Item 35  Passed 6-1, Fix Lopez abstaining. 

Item 44: Passed unanimously. 

Thompson requested that CAO Malika Savoy-Brooks follow-up with staff and make sure all schools know about this sign language service. 

Item 45:  Passed 5-2, Egea-Hinton and Salley abstaining. 

Item 47: Passed 5-1-1, with Wilkerson abstaining and Salley voting  No. 

Items 48, 49, 51: Passed unanimously. 

Item 52: Passed 6-1, Salley voting No. 

Salley noted here that she wants to understand the whole picture around these kinds of Items and not just place them all in a consent agenda, thus blocking discussion.  She wants the Board to understand the full ramifications of the Items, not just the current spending. She noted this reservation for Items 52 through 58.

Items  53, 54, 55, 58, 69:  Passed 6-1, Salley voting No. 

Item 56:  Passed unanimously. 

Item 57:  Passed 5-2, Salley and Thompson voting No. 

Item 60:  Passed unanimously. 

Thompson stressed the hardship on families who have to figure out how to get students to school and said the District needs to work to get students back on buses. 

Item 63:  Passed unanimously. 

Item 70:  Passed 6-1, Wilkerson abstaining. 

Salley voted yes (“for now”)  for this Great City Schools but said the Board should reconsider its support in the future.  

Item 64:  Passed unanimously. 

Thompson asked CAO Savoy-Brooks to monitor the availability of these translation services to all schools. 

Item 71: Passed unanimously. 

After voting on action items, Wilkerson convened the meeting of the  Intermediate Unit. meeting. Without deliberation, Board members voted: 
I U Item 9: Passed 6-1, Salley abstaining. 
I U Item 2: Passed unanimously
I U Item 13: Passed unanimously
I U Items 1 through 8, 10: Passed unanimously.
I U Item 11: Passed 5-2, Fix Lopez and Salley abstaining.

The Board approved  spending of  $364,689,299 at this meeting. 

This meeting began at 4:00 PM and adjourned  at 11:42 PM.