Will Board Cancel Contracts without Explanation?

Ears on the Board of Education: April 21, 2022

by Diane Payne

Over the years, APPS members and others have testified about the barriers to finding basic information on the District website, for content as well as for technical reasons. There is too often a lack of straightforward and honest presentations. The agenda for this action meeting is another such example.  Omitted from the agenda posted online and distributed at the meeting, again, were the legislative update given by Board Member Fix Lopez, the Parent and Community Advisory presentation given by Board Member Thompson, and the Student Representative presentation given by Rebecca Allen.  None of these were about issues that had just arisen. The agenda also failed to include dollar amounts for Item 8, Item 9 and Item 28. This may lead observers to think these are no-cost items. In fact, Action Item 8 totalled $15 million and Item 9 totaled $16.9 million. Item 28, a 5-year renewal for Mastery Shoemaker, will cost the District a minimum of $50 million. The Board has a duty to inform the public of how they are spending public funds.  

McColgan Resigns 

Seven Board members were present in the auditorium; Cecelia Thompson attended remotely. Student Representative Rebecca Allen attended remotely; Student Representative Armando Ortiz attended in person.  Board President Wilkerson announced the resignation of Board Member Maria McColgan, effective May 6, and thanked McColgan for her service. Overseeing the welfare of 200,000 students and a budget of close to $4 billion is no small task.  Board members commit to training, meetings, and public accountability without financial compensation. The most important duty of Board members is to listen to the public.  Unfortunately, McColgan ended her service with dismissive comments made after APPS member Ilene Poses testified. Before the next speaker began, McColgan turned to Dr. Hite and said,  “We keep hearing this thing come up about libraries.”  She asked him whether principals have asked for school librarians; Hite said that they had not.  McColgan’s question reinforced the failed concept of “principal autonomy”.  As APPS members pointed out at both the budget hearing and this action meeting, principals are forced to make the best choices from their limited budgets. They have to decide what their students won’t have. McColgan spoke about school libraries as if they were some strange concept that people won’t stop pestering them about. Members of the principals’ union CASA have been advocating since last year to have the central administration fund five core  positions. APPS has been calling for years to fund and reinstate school libraries staffed with Certified Teaching Librarians (CTLs) as a 6th core position. We have cited much peer-reviewed research to support the benefits of school libraries.  Neighboring districts have fully staffed school libraries. It is only the poor districts that get to “choose” to not have a library.  

Wilkerson then noted there are now two vacancies on the Board for which the Mayor’s Nominating Panel is now accepting applications. APPS continues to protest the Nominating Panel’s secretive process, shutting out the public from taking any part in the selection of those who serve on the governing body of the District. Philadelphia is the only city in Pennsylvania without an elected school board, so it is especially egregious that the Mayor shuts the public out completely. The Black and Brown people who make up the majority of District stakeholders continue to be disenfranchised.  

Fix Lopez, in her legislative update (not included in the agenda), noted that Board members would be going to Harrisburg to lobby for charter school reform and approval of Governor Wolf’s budget, which contains increases for public school funding.  She urged all members of the public to spend 15 minutes a week calling and writing their representatives to support this budget.  For years APPS has asked the Board, as the local authorizers, to initiate its own charter reform, including holding public charter renewal hearings and ending secret negotiations with charter operators.  
Thompson gave the Parent and Community Advisory Committee report (PCAC).  This Committee actually engages very little with the public.   Thompson stated that the PCAC “provided support” during report card conferences and spring break, but she failed to specify what “provided support” meant, who provided it, or where it happened. The Board needs to seek input from actual community advocates on what real engagement could be because there is little real community engagement.  The speaker suppression instituted by the Board 15 months ago is an obvious example of community dis-engagement.

Board Members Must Take Action on Teacher Retention

As part of his superintendent report, Dr. Hite called up Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson to address some budget issues and to answer Board members’ questions about additional funding to outside legal firms as proposed in Action Item 31.  Monson stated that the amount attached to the Item is an increase in authorization but not an increase in what was originally budgeted.  Board members accepted this answer as justification for this expenditure.  Several APPS members objected to the Board’s regular increases of funds to legal firms. Lisa Haver referred to it in her testimony as the District’s “slush fund”. 
Chief Talent Officer Larissa Shambaugh presented new initiatives to address staff vacancies including completing a mid-year hiring process, offering bonuses for hard to staff schools, instituting a teacher “pool” to be centrally funded with staff to place in schools in need, and maintaining benefits over the summer for those who inform the District of their leaving by the end of the school year.  As Board members questioned why so many teachers and staff are leaving, Shambaugh responded that exit surveys are conducted but  admitted that they are not of much value because not all those leaving fill them out and because by that time nothing can be done about the issues they raise.  Hite then interjected that the administration needs to ask teachers before they are leaving what they need to forestall exodus.  He seemed to completely miss the irony of his remark; his own administrators and staff have actually been telling him for months, in vain, what they need.  Start with the five centrally funded positions CASA has demanded so that teachers are supported. Board Member Salley asked if administration could get principals to report on what they need and how the District can improve teacher retention.  Has Salley not heard what principals have told them at Board meetings for months?

Public Speakers Advocate for School Libraries

All six registered student speakers appeared, most in person.  It was during this portion of the meeting that the lid was blown on conditions at Bodine High School. This volatile situation, which led to student walkouts, was featured in several Inquirer stories.

Why did it take until Bodine students spoke for this crisis to be addressed? Neither Wilkerson nor Hite raised the issue in their remarks.  Two students and one staff member spoke about the crisis that forced Bodine students to walk out of their building on three consecutive days before spring break. Allegations of fighting, uneven dress code enforcement, lack of accountability were disturbing enough. But why did the administration take no action against a staff person accused of several incidents of student harassment?  At Board members’ insistence, Hite agreed to provide the Board with an update Friday morning on the conditions at Bodine. 

All ten registered general speakers appeared. Four members of APPS spoke in defense of public education; three members submitted written testimony.   APPS co-founder Lisa Haver amended her prepared remarks to call out Board Member McColgan’s false narrative on libraries, saying that the question about school libraries was not whether principals were “choosing” them–the question is why do our students keep getting cheated out of them. Haver then squeezed her remarks about the Board’s legal fees “slush fund”.  All APPS testimonies can be viewed on the APPS website.

Is Goals and Guardrails Meant to Inform or Confuse? 

This month’s Goals and Guardrails data analysis, which lasted one hour and 45 minutes, examined Goal 3: the percentage of students in grades 3-8 who are proficient in state math assessments. The final conclusion: students are not on target but there is a slight positive increase in scores to indicate G&G are working.  Professional development, common planning time, and movement toward quality tier one teaching are identified as impacting this slight positive trend in math scores.  Chief of Schools Evelyn Nunez acknowledged that the staffing challenges due to COVID affected the ability to fully implement common planning time as well as increasing the 79% and 71% of staff and admins receiving the professional development they need. 

Chief of Evaluation, Research, and Accountability Tonya Wolford and Chief of Academic Support Malika Savoy Brooks also contributed to the G and G analysis.  BM Salley asked Savoy-Brooks to explain one aspect of the data. After Savoy-Brooks’ lengthy explanation, Salley responded, “Respectfully, I have no idea what you are talking about.”  That would be a fair reaction to the entire G and G.

Board Adds Questionable Amendments to High-Cost Items

A discussion about one seven-item bloc preceded the voting.  BM Salley questioned the wisdom of locking in contracts worth millions of dollars when a new superintendent is about to come on board.  General Counsel Lynn Rauch offered to draft language for an amendment to add to each of the seven Items that would state the District could cancel the contracts at will and without any financial penalty to the District. 

Items 3, 4, 5:  Passed unanimously. 

Item 28:  Mastery Shoemaker 5-year renewal: Passed unanimously. 

Rauch read into the record the objection, filed by Lisa Haver on behalf of APPS, stating that the Board’s vote on this Item without the full content constitutes a vote taken in secret. That is a violation of the PA Sunshine Act. 

Action Item 12, Playground at Farrell School: Passed 6- 2, with Salley and Thompson dissenting.  Fix Lopez noted that this Item proposes a continuation of plans that were originally discussed and approved by the Board before discussions on equity on this matter.  Therefore, that justified moving forward with this playground despite existing equity concerns.  Salley disagreed and noted that if they voted No on the Sayre pool renovation due to needing a master plan for equity considerations she could not in good conscience vote Yes on this Item.  Not mentioned was the Sheridan Elementary school community coming before the Board last October urging the Board once again to approve a playground at the school. Sheridan is located in Kensington, one of the roughest parts of the city.  Farrell, in the Northeast, is located in a very different area.  Should it matter when this discussion took place if equity is identified at this moment?

Action Item 14, No-cost Energy Audit: Denied 5-3. Fix Lopez, Salley, Streater, Thompson, and Wilkerson voted No. There was a great deal of confusion among the Board members about who was doing the audit and when. Wilkerson said she had concerns about minority participation. 

Action Item 26, $8 million Electric School Bus Purchase: Passed unanimously.

Salley questioned whether the infrastructure was in place to support the electric bus purchases.  Facilities Chief Reggie McNeil came on screen to assure the Board that this is a continuation of purchases to relieve the District of diesel-powered buses and the infrastructure was in place.  

Item 31, $1.4 million additional funding for outside counsel fees: Passed unanimously.

Items 7, 10, 11, 13, 15-22, 25, 29, 30: Passed unanimously.

Action Items 1, 2, 8, 9, 23, 24, 27: Passed unanimously except for Item 9 from which Thompson abstained.  Actually two votes were taken, one on the Items themselves and one to approve an amendment to all of the Items that stipulates that any and all of the contracts can be canceled at-will and without penalty to the District; the vote to amend also passed unanimously. This vote raises several questions. Were the votes taken properly?  Once one or more Board members raised concerns, Wilkerson should have removed them from the consent agenda. Salley wanted to postpone many or all of the contracts until the new superintendent took office; Fix Lopez cited the “quarter of a billion” spending in Item 27 alone.  Streater introduced the motion  to amend (as mentioned at the onset of voting) but it was not clear whether his motion constituted the exact language of the amendment.  Wilkerson called for one vote for all of the Items, stating that the amendment would be added to each one. When Danzy expressed confusion when she was called on to vote, Wilkerson should have read the amendment in full. (We checked the online agenda the next day–not one of the Items has been amended.) In addition, neither Streater nor Rauch explained what “without penalty” means here. In legal cases, a penalty means paying for damages incurred. Does the Board propose to cancel multi-million dollar contracts and refuse to pay the balance–or just not pay for any damages to the company for canceling early?  The Board should answer these questions at its next meeting and give an update on which of the companies have agreed to this stipulation. 

The Board approved spending of approximately $407.7 million at this meeting.

After four hours and 15 minutes, the meeting adjourned at 8:45.