Will Board of Education Act on Public Demands?

Special Hearing:  May 20, 2021

by Diane Payne

When District governance returned to the local Board of Education in 2018, the amended Philadelphia Home Rule Charter required the Board to hold at least two annual public hearings for the sole purpose of hearing public testimony. No voting on any official Item takes place. The Board has now held both even though the year is not yet half over.  All members of the Board, both student representatives, and Dr. Hite attended.  The Board changed the speaker rules again, allowing all who signed up to speak and allotting them three minutes. Next week, at the Action Meeting, when the Board conducts official business, we expect the Board to reinstate its speaker suppression policy with a limited number of speakers, all cut off at two minutes. Technical problems that appeared to be outside the District’s control delayed the start of the meeting for almost half an hour. The Board added a zoom link to the website because the TV channels were not broadcasting and announced that via social media. Unfortunately, families that did not have the required technology were not able to observe or attend. 

More Details Needed in Capital Budget                                 

Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson and Chief Operating Officer Reggie McNeil presented an overview of next year’s $422.6 million capital budget.  (This PowerPoint can be found here.)    Capital investments inclusive of environmental work focus on six areas: new construction; major renovations and additions; classroom improvements; energy efficiency renovations; life-cycle replacements including HVAC improvements; other District-wide technology, transportation, safety investments, and various assessments.  The biggest slice of the pie, at 27%, will be spent on new construction. Board member Fix Lopez asked for more details on what was included in the second biggest slice, 15% for “other”.  Monson told her that the category includes technology systems, transportation, and safety.  The final page identified the phases of the Facilities Master Plan:  Neighborhood Projections/Forecasts; Facilities Assessment;  and Staff and Community Engagement. 

Several of the public speakers called for a “Peoples’ Facility Master Plan”. Many remember that the SRC’s 2012 Facilities Master Plan resulted in the closing of over 22 neighborhood schools, with only perfunctory community engagement. None of the Board members asked where the public could access the completed information from the first phase, Projections and Forecasts.

Fix Lopez asked why, considering the ongoing issues with toxic conditions in many schools, “Environmental” comprise such a small percentage of the capital budget. Monson replied that most of that remediation comes out of the operating budget and that only when an environmental expenditure is part of a larger plan for the building does it come from the capital budget.  When Fix Lopez questioned how equity is factored into this plan, using playgrounds as an example, McNeil noted that needs are based on the availability of grants, existing conditions, and current structures.  He admitted that the current evaluation system has been in use for years and doesn’t reflect the current climate and equity concerns.  No Board member asked why the public’s concerns been not been factored into the budget. Or why the Administration depends on grants for playground improvements rather than make that part of every annual capital budget. 

President Wilkerson asked how recent $10 million from the University of Pennsylvania dollars was incorporated into this budget.  Monson answered that grants that come with stipulations are included in the capital budget but it wasn’t clear where or how the public can see that specific pot of money. Wilkerson and the Board should follow up on these questions at their next meeting. The public has a right to know how their money is being spent.  

Students Ask for More Mental Health Supports                         

A number of student speakers advocated for more counselors and mental health supports.  One Asian-American high school student spoke of the need for stronger measures against the uptick in hate-fueled physical and verbal attacks. Hite responded that the administration welcomes student ideas on how to improve mental health supports and suggested students email him or the student reps to begin a dialogue.  Unfortunately, history shows that the students will probably not get very far in this pursuit. Philly Student Union’s demands for police-free schools and more mental health supports have gone unheeded.  Students and staff advocating for the District to adopt formal policies to support student voter registration has also been an uphill battle for years, despite Board members’ vocal endorsements.  Hite asked the student who spoke about the safety of Asian-American students to make sure to report any incidents to her teacher or principal, which she probably has already done. When students come to the Board on important issues, they should get an answer from the Board, not be told to take it somewhere else.  When Board member Thompson asked about the lack of sanitary products, raised by a Central HS student,  Hite promised to investigate. When the investigation is concluded, will he make sure that these products are available? When Fix Lopez questioned about safety for students on their way to and from school, Hite replied that the District is working with SEPTA, Philadelphia Police, School Safety Officers, and Safe Corridor groups. However, nothing specific was provided by Hite to indicate what the safety measures looked like or how they work. We look forward to the day that the Board members demand substantive answers from Hite and all members of his administration. 

Board Must Consider Equity in All Decisions

Forty-three adults registered to speak, showing again that the Board’s arbitrary cap of thirty at Action Meetings silences parents, educators and community members every month.  Several of the District’s Speech Language Pathologists (SLP) presented a  unified message about the need for hiring more SLPs.  Despite vacancies, there is no open application.  In fact, the hiring process is closed for a significant part of the year.  Large caseloads and lack of support result in high turnover.  When interested applicants go to District links, they receive an error message which further blocks recruitment and retention. Hiring outside contractors to fill positions further destabilizes their work across the District.  This familiar picture is painted month after month by teachers, specialists, and principals.

Teacher Kristin Luebbert reminded the Board that a budget is a moral document and urged them to reject Action Item 19, saying, “Students need people not platforms.”  The District’s expensive over-testing has done little to promote good reading instruction.  Computer platforms should assist, not replace quality in-person instruction.

APPS co-founder Lisa Haver told the Board that they are responsible for making sure that their constituents, the District’s stakeholders, hear the truth on all District issues, and that they must actively refute the spread of any misinformation. Four years ago, the District invited several charter school operators and charter lobbyists to participate in secret negotiations over a period of six months, from October 2017 to April 2018, for the purpose of revising both charter accountability measures and the PA Charter Law. No teacher, parent, student or community member was invited to take part. Neither the SRC or the Board, which took over a few months later, ever disclosed the existence of these meetings or any decisions made in them.   Haver raised this in the context of the current claims of some charter operators that decisions not to renew certain charters have been based not on the performance of the schools (as evaluated by the framework they themselves helped to revise) but on racial discrimination on the part of those in the Charter Schools Office. Haver also noted that a number of charters, including two operated by Universal, were actually renewed despite recommendations for non-renewal. The charter operators have demanded an investigation, which Wilkerson has agreed to, thus validating the unsubstantiated claims of the charter operators. 

Three more APPS members testified.  Deb Grill spoke on the need for play in young children’s school days, citing a plethora of research on the subject. She stressed that this traumatic year only increases this need and should not be ignored in a quest to overcome “learning loss.”

Lynda Rubin spoke against Action Item 70,  a MOU with Philadelphia Academy of School Leaders (PASL) via the  Neubauer Foundation Fellowship Training. Rubin pointed out that Neubauer, as a corporate leader, used top-down control as CEO of Aramark, Incorporated.  Attempting to apply this ideology to education is a mistake because schools are not businesses and students are not products. 

Barbara Dowdall advocated  for more school libraries staffed with Certified Teacher Librarians (CTL). Today the District has only 4 in its 210 schools. She linked this to the anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling that emphasizes the importance of what the state provides its children.  Dowdall asked the Board to publicly support the current PA House Bill 1168 that would require a Certified Teacher Librarian in every school in the Commonwealth. 

A number of parents testified in favor of full-time in-person instruction in all District schools. Although few mentioned the reason for the closing of school buildings, they decried the fact that buildings were not open for the better part of this year and demanded that school buildings be completely open next year, in the words of one, “no matter what”. Though many buildings have reopened, about 75% of parents have chosen to keep their children participating in virtual learning at home. Much of this testimony failed to acknowledge the District’s obligation to ensure the health and safety of teachers, staff, and principals–and the other students. Nor was there any acknowledgement of the death and long-term health concerns that have mounted throughout this year.  When a speaker makes demands that ignore the wishes of most parents, it is hard to see any consideration of equity in this argument. 

Councilmembers Isaiah Thomas and Curtis Jones both registered to speak on the issue of Black-led charters but neither showed up. 

NOTE: The Action Meeting on Thursday May 27th will begin at 4 PM instead of the usual 5 PM. Registration to speak will close at 4 PM Wednesday May 26th–or whenever the list is “full”.