When We Fight, We Win

Photo: Lisa Haver

Board of Education Action Meeting: March 23, 2023

by Lynda Rubin and Lisa Haver

Close to 200 students from Saul High School, Franklin Learning Center and several other special-admission schools rallied on the steps of district headquarters to fight against the devastating cuts in faculty and staff caused by the district’s faulty enrollment algorithm. Students and supporters held up signs saying “Save Our Teachers” and “I Am Not An Algorithm”. Parents, teachers, principals, and community members came to support the students and their schools at the rally and in their testimony to the Board. For the first time in a long time, the auditorium was packed, and many who came were diverted to the overflow section in the atrium. 

The first victory came before the rally was over: Superintendent Tony Watlington, Jr. issued a statement that his administration would reopen enrollment at twelve of the schools now facing substantial cuts. But that remedy remains inadequate, U School teacher Kristin Luebbert told the board in her testimony:  “Reopen enrollment for schools with available spaces, all schools with available spaces, not just 12.” Any cuts, she said, would cause “a slow-rolling disaster that will cause harm to many Black and brown students.”

The next victory came when students demanded that the board amend the agenda to hear from their speakers before the board embarked on another lengthy presentation. More than an hour and a half into the meeting, after resolutions and citations, then presentations and questions,  students had waited patiently. President Reginald Streater responded to demands from the audience by claiming that the board was not able to amend the agenda once the meeting began. That elicited cries from APPS members who had seen the board do exactly that on several occasions.  “Take a vote to amend the agenda!” the audience chanted. A motion was made,  and after brief deliberation, the board voted unanimously to amend the agenda. 

Students testified eloquently about the issues they face year after year, including toxic buildings and devastating cuts in their schools’ faculty and staff.  Two Saul students testified together, one ceding some of her time to her friend who was not allowed on the list due to the board’s speaker suppression policies. Another student submitted written testimony when he didn’t make it onto the list. Board leadership, however, has admitted in court that most of the written testimony sent in is not read by board members.  Live testimony by students and public speakers has more impact on both Board members and audience than virtual testimony or reading of summarized written “testimony”. Everyone has benefited by the addition of the Student Board Representatives. The board should give more students an opportunity to be heard by rescinding the speaker suppression policies. 

Students taught adults a valuable lesson at this meeting: when we show up, when we challenge the authorities, when we make ourselves heard–we can win.

More Misinformation from District on Toxic Buildings 
Dr. Watlington announced that he has asked the Office of Inspector General (OIG),  an independent office at district headquarters, to investigate the district’s failure to report on the asbestos at Building 21 and Mastery Gratz school buildings  and to report its findings to the board. Watlington failed to mention, however,  that  only 2 ½  years ago the OIG issued a report following its investigation of asbestos and other dangers to students and staff at the building now housing Ben Franklin HS and the Science Leadership Academy (SLA).  Exposure to asbestos and other contaminants during the on-site construction work during the  2019-20 school year necessitated that investigation. The Hite administration, more than once, shut out parents and community members during that crisis. Meetings were held only after months of broken promises and misinformation from the administration.  The board at that time promised this would never happen again

District Takes Steps to Fix Enrollment Snafu
District teachers sounded the alarm almost two weeks ago about the sudden drop in enrollment at special-admission high schools. The enrollment process enacted earlier this year, which the board had promised would bring more equity, brought instead fears about the future of schools that were losing significant numbers of both students and staff. The new system, using an algorithm based mostly on standardized test scores, resulted in many qualified students denied admission, leaving many schools wondering how they could operate without less than full enrollment and a gutted faculty. The board and administration have claimed that the problem was caused, in part, by special education students’ admissions to be completed later. But special ed students, of course, are admitted every year without this level of chaos. In addition, it appears that many students were diverted from their school of choice to others to which they did not apply. Some were rejected, in effect, when given no school option. This year’s process has resulted in allegations of unfairness from the schools themselves and from the families affected. This has served  to disrupt parents’ and students’ decisions about their future, including whether to stay in district public schools. 

Most egregious were the unsubstantiated statements made by some board members that principals had engaged in widespread “backdoor admissions”–that is, surreptitiously admitting students who hadn’t even applied or who had not met the application standards.  The board provided no evidence to back this reckless statement. People are not going to fall for this diversion. They want to know what the board is going to do to clean up the mess the district created. More importantly, what is the board going to do to regain the trust of students and parents? 

Administration Blames Teachers
Dr. Watlington repeated the claim he has made in previous meetings, that teacher absences are a leading cause of lack of student progress. While the district administration has always tracked staff absences, there seems to be a new level of blame being placed on teachers and school staff. Experienced educators know that a number of factors contribute to students’ difficulties in learning and behavior. BM Cecelia Thompson questioned whether long-term absences were being lumped in with daily absences. For example, those on maternity leave are not absent. Moreover, the board is not taking into account the lack of sufficient support staff in each school that principals and administrators are still fighting for. There are 5 critical positions that President Dr. Robin Cooper and CASA Local 502 (Commonwealth Association of School Administrators) members have demanded the district assign to every school: Assistant Principal, Lead Reading Teacher, Lead Math Teacher, Climate Manager and Special Ed Coordinator. (APPS would add to that list Certified Teacher LIbrarian.) The assignment of these 5 staff at every school would provide coordinated planning and support so that teachers can address specific and cohesive approaches for each school’s population needs. At many schools, not all positions are filled, so teachers and staff are expected to do double duty. 440 administration has support staff to develop enact programs, to support parents and to respond to emergencies. Every school should have the necessary support staff to better fulfill students’ needs in learning, behavior and attendance. 

Parents and Community Return to Demand Pool Reopenings 
Another victory: Watlington announced that the pool at Sayre school, closed for years, would reopen in the near future. The board last year voted against funding to reopen the Sayre pool.  “The district is currently working on an updated cost estimate for reopening the pool,” he told the board. “We will meet with city officials in mid-April to provide an update on the progress.”  Watlington said that he expected a board vote to approve in May.  Parents, students and community leaders have testified at several recent board meetings to demand the reopening of public pools, particularly in North and West Philadelphia. Pools serve not only as recreation spots but as educational centers for swimming and life-saving classes.  The group reminded the board that Black and brown students are more likely to lose their lives to drowning than other children. President Streater stated that the board is in negotiations with the City for working governance of City and school pools. At this meeting, community members also asked for reopening of the pool at Pickett Middle School in Germantown, now operated by Mastery charters. The district still owns the building, so the board has the authority to open that pool.

Goals and Guardrails
The board conducted the data monitoring and analysis from 8:35 to 10 PM,  one hour and 25 minutes.

Board Approves $18 Million Expenditure for Outside Legal Firms
Eight of the board members attended in person. Cecelia Thompson attended via zoom.  

Item 5, Termination of Professional Employees:   Withdrawn by staff prior to meeting.

Item 16, Contract with Public Consulting Group:  Withdrawn by staff prior to meeting. 

Item 18, Contract with The Milton Project, LLC: Withdrawn by staff prior to meeting.     

Item 7, Adoption of Lump Sum Budget Statement:  Passed unanimously.  
Several board members asked for clarification about whether debt service affects past debt and/or future budget projections and whether it affects the capital budget. Thompson asked when the Budget Book and the School Budget Books for families would be available. She was told in late April. 

Item 8, Outside Counsel Authorization for FY23 extension ($1,200,000) and authorization for FY 2024-26 ($18,000,000): Passed 7-2, Salley and Thompson dissenting. Salley made a motion to table the item, saying,  “We’re spending more on legal without understanding the whole process of legal spending.”  The motion to table failed, 6-3, Salley, Thompson and Fix Lopez dissenting.  

Items 1-4, 6, 8-13, 15 and 17:  Passed unanimously. 

Item 14, MOU with University of Pennsylvania:  Passed 6-0. Fix-Lopez, Sally and Thompson all recused themselves to avoid possible conflict of interest. 

At one point during the voting, which began at 10 PM and ended at 10:35,  President Streater responded to a comment made off-mic by another board member by saying, “Yes, I want to go home.” Later, one board member apologized for her confusion about how to vote on an item: “It’s really late.” This meeting convened at 4 PM and ended 6 and a half hours later. The board should conduct the important business of voting on official items earlier in the meeting so that students, parents, and community members can keep watching and participating. APPS again urges the board to move the Goals and Guardrails, which takes up an hour and a half to two hours of every meeting, to the end of the agenda. 

Meeting adjourned 10:35 PM.

Next Board of Education meeting: Thursday, April 20, 2023. The board will hold its budget hearing at 4 pm; the action meeting will follow. 
Policy Committee Meeting: Thursday, April 20, 2023 at 4 PM.