Will New Board Leadership Bring New Priorities?

Ears on the Board of Education: December 15, 2022

by Diane Payne

Students, educators, parents and community members who attended this action meeting waited in vain for the Board to discuss solutions for problems that had been in the news in the past few weeks:  unsafe conditions at district schools, in particular Dobbins High school. Neither Board President Wilkerson nor Superintendent Tony Watlington mentioned the developing crisis.  The Board stayed silent on the Dobbins crisis at its November 17 meeting, even after a Philadelphia Inquirerstory published just the day before.   A December 9 Inquirer article quoted several district teachers about the administration’s failure to keep them and their students safe.  Why won’t Board members and the superintendent discuss these crises at public meetings?  

This meeting saw a change in Board leadership, with Reginald Streater taking the reins as Board President. In addition, Deputy Superintendent Uri Monson, the district’s CFO for years, has been tapped by PA Governor-elect Josh Shapiro to serve as his Budget Director; this was his last Board meeting.  Watlington has increased central administration staff to address “customer service” (a term steeped in a corporate, product-oriented mentality rather than public service).  Maybe the Board and Watlington could begin to address improved communication with a “no-cost” effort to publicly address concerns like those mentioned here as a first step to engagement and transparency.  

Those who tuned in to the first day of virtual non-renewal hearings for Southwest Leadership Academy Charter school in November were told by the hearing examiner that there was an illness in the family of one of the participants. The hearings were postponed until the following week, then until December, then until January 2023. The non-renewal hearings for Laboratory Charter scheduled for October never convened; they were postponed twice without explanation, and the district subsequently announced that they had reached a settlement in private negotiations. There is a strong possibility that the Board’s Charter Schools Office is now negotiating behind the scenes with Southwest Leadership managers. Voting in public not to renew charters, then moving to private meetings with charter operators, follows the Board’s practice of conducting all charter business in secret. None of the Board members raised questions about either of these non-renewals. 

Acoustic Problems Repeatedly Plague Meetings
All Board members were present, with Cecelia Thompson again attending remotely.  At least one of the two student representatives was present and gave a brief report, but the wide camera placement makes it difficult for those viewing remotely to see who is at the head table.  Thompson and the hearing impairment interpreter take up half the screen; the remaining board members, student board members,  superintendent, and general counsel take up the other half.  In addition, there was a disorienting problem with the audio system, with voices fading in and out.  It was eventually fixed but left the early part of the meeting hard to hear.  

Vice-President Egea-Hinton congratulated Board President Joyce Wilkerson for her lifetime achievement award from the Council of Urban Boards of Education. Thompson gave the standard Parent and Community Advisory Council (PCAC) report which remains shy on substance. The PCAC  “achievements” included members giving feedback, attending events, and offering input, but no specifics were offered.  She noted that the Family and Community Engagement Office (FACE) met with PCAC to educate members on School Advisory Councils (SAC).(Board meeting materials and video of the meeting can be found on the Board’s webpage. https://www.philasd.org/schoolboard/ )

Superintendent Offers No Solutions to Safety Issues
Superintendent Watlington spoke onwhere we are and where we are going”.  He said that administration would be monitoring student and staff attendance because it is crucial to school performance to have good attendance.  Although he issued a caveat that the administration is not looking to point fingers, policies and practices indicate otherwise. Watlington said he did not want people coming to work sick, but he omitted the fact that district staff are disciplined the third time they take sick days. None of the board members raised that issue.

 Staff attendance policy is already a demoralizing maze of tallying the number of sick days coupled with disciplinary memos from school administrators, so it is doubtful staff will feel like fingers are not pointing at them.  For both students and staff, not only is COVID still very present in our community, we are in the throes of a “tridemic” of COVID, Flu, and RSV.  Also not addressed by Watlington was the very real fact that families living in poverty struggle disproportionately with asthma.    Yes, attendance is important but humane strategies must be baked into how it is addressed.  Missing from Watlington’s presentation was what those humane strategies may be.  

With regard to safety, Watlington asserted that when student behavior presents any danger, it should be dealt with right away, but he offered no specifics. He said the actions of a few students should not generalize how all students are viewed.  Watlington and the Board would be wise to take heed of the testimony from district staffer Kristin Luebbert.  (Testimony of all defenders of public education including Luebbert’s can be viewed at https://appsphilly.net/ ) She told the Board what schools need both to prevent these problems and to deal with them when they occur: trained support staff whose only job it is to help students in crisis.  Not more computer programs, not more consultants, volunteers, or programs that come and go, but school based staff dedicated to supporting students in crisis.

Chief Operating Officer Reggie McNeil, in his transportation update, said that the district is exceeding its monthly goals for on-time bus arrivals.  He contended that response time to bussing problems has improved and that his office is working on a way to alert parents of bus lateness.  

APPS Members Speak
District teacher Kristin Luebbert, a 21-year district teacher, reminded the Board that the way to address student behavior issues is to hire trained support staff people to do that job and that job only. In reference to the issues presented in the Inquirer story, Luebbert said that it is not realistic to think that teachers can stop teaching in order to try to calm down one student and it is not fair to the other 30+ students in the class.  Lisa Haver urged the Board to deny the four new charter applications, saying that if school privatization had worked at all over the past 25 years, we would be in a “golden era of education”.  Ilene Poses asked the Board to “do the math” before voting to approve more consultant contracts, singing “vendors who need spenders” to the tune of “People”.

New Board Leadership Takes Over
Superintendent Watlington presided over this year’s board reorganization.  Joyce  Wilkerson, who has served as president since the board’s return in 2018, declined to run again. She nominated Reginald Streater for the position; no other nominations were made, and Streater was elected unanimously.  Watlington then opened nominations for Vice-president. Egea-Hinton announced that she would not accept a nomination to continue in that role and nominated Fix Lopez, lauding her accomplishments as a Board member.  Thompson then nominated Lisa Salley for the position and read a lengthy statement of support. Both nominees made statements about why they should be elected.  Accepting Thompsons’s nomination, Salley promised to work at better communication, more transparency, and leveraging the skills and connections of all nine board members. Her statement seemed to reveal a crack in the facade of a fully unified board and some previously hidden stress lines.  Fix Lopez was elected 7-2,  with Thompson and Salley the only votes for Salley.  In his 13-minute acceptance speech, Streater promised to “center the voices of students, parents, and educators’ ‘, although he did not say how. The most obvious way would be to reinstate full speakers’ rights and put an end to the speaker suppression instituted under the previous administration.

Goals and Guardrails
In a 55-minute session, the Board analyzed the data collected for Guardrail 3, “partnering with parents and family members”. Two indicators are monitored in the examination of this Guardrail: Indicator 1.1, the percentage of schools with high overall district-wide survey school relationship responses; and Indicator 3.2, the percentage of schools that have a School Advisory Council that holds the required yearly meetings.  The administration concluded that the District is not on track for Indicator 1.1 but is on track for Indicator 3.2.  The report indicated that the district struggles to get parents to return surveys. No mention was made of the Board’s capping the number of speakers at public meetings and limiting speakers to 2 minutes.

Heavy Hand of New Leadership
Board members approved all 29 items on the agenda, 28 unanimously.  

Items 2 and 30: Withdrawn by staff prior to the meeting.  APPS’ Eyes on the Board urged the board not to approve this expensive consulting contract in Item 2 for “more authentic communication”. A much simpler and less costly solution would be the Board ending its speaker suppression policies.  

Item 26, Board Policies, for review only. The Board will vote on them at the January 2023 meeting.

Items 4 through 7:  Passed unanimously 

Item 1, 2023 Board Calendar: Passed 7 to 2, Salley and Thompson dissenting.  
Thompson had asked for this item to be pulled from the consent agenda.  Thompson asked if she was left out of discussion about these dates. Thompson noted that there had been previous talk about pulling Goals and Guardrails out of the Action Meeting and making it a separate meeting and possibly scheduling two meetings a month. (APPS has urged the board to do this in letters and in testimony.)  She asked what happened to that suggestion.  She noted that just because meetings have always been scheduled one way it doesn’t preclude a discussion among Board members to reexamine. (Thompson’s comments raise serious concerns about whether Board members are regularly holding discussions about official matters in private meetings. President Streater did not use this opportunity to clarify that private discussions about action items would violate the state’s Sunshine Act.) Salley then asked how the Board could improve scheduling of the  Intermediate Unit (I.U.) meetings. Thompson noted that every other I.U.in the state has regularly scheduled meetings where business is discussed even when there is no voting on the agenda. 

Streater moved to end the discussion, noting that Action Item 1 had been moved and properly seconded and said, “let our votes do the talking”.  Wilkerson interjected that there is a task force led by Egea-Hinton on how to restructure board meetings and suggested that the I.U. component could be folded into that work.  Streater then directed members to vote Yes or No, to propose an amendment, or to move to table,  but that it was time to let their votes do the talking.  After the vote was taken, Streater again told the Board that they can try to persuade each other but that going forward, he wants to conduct meetings using the correct procedural motions and voting protocol. Thompson asked if that was a suggestion or edict.  Streater gave a one-word reply: “Edict”. Thompson responded that she “refused” the edict and that she needed to calm down. She then told Streater,  “I am asking a question”.  Streater told her she was out of order.  Thompson answered, “No, you are out of order.”  After an uncomfortable pause, Streater declared that they would move on to the next item and again said meetings would be conducted via Robert’s Rules of Order. Thompson ended the discussion by saying then we all need to learn them.  (Streater apologized to Thompson later in the meeting.) 

Items 17, 22, 23, 27: Passed unanimously. 
Thompson questioned Item 17, Joseph A. DeLuca Advisory & Consulting Services LLC.  This contract was originally approved for $2,835,450 and is being amended for an additional $6,256,418,  total compensation now $9,091,868.Thompson stated that there was no documentation justifying additional spending.  Munson came up to justify the additional spending, saying that between federal deadlines and an inability to hire people in time, this was a necessary move.

Item 25:  PowerSchool Learning Management System $1,750,000: Passed unanimously. 
Fix Lopez asked why the district needed this new learning system and what happened to the previous learning system.  She accepted a district administrator’s explanation that the previous system was a pilot and that it lacked the ability to interface with the state. Fix Lopez did note, as have Salley and Thompson, that too often Items don’t include enough information to grasp the full picture of why they are necessary.  She said that making the “story” of the Item clear would help when it came time to vote.  

Item 31, Amendment of Contract with Institute for the Development of African American Youth Inc. for Expansion of Safe Path School and Community Safety Corridor Program $250,000:  Passed unanimously.
This item adds $250,000 to the original contract of $505,819 for a total of $755,819. Chief Safety Officer Kevin Bethel gave an update on how this Item expands the Safe Path safety corridor program to support school and community safety outreach in identifying  high needs school corridors.  He stated that the district does not have the capacity to provide this service and that it has been very difficult to find vendors to supply the service. They will be searching for additional vendors but this vendor will be a first step to provide safe corridor service. Bethel said that gun violence, safety, and safe corridors are such overwhelming areas of concern and attempting to address these issues are crucial. There are real concerns about outsourcing this service.  Board members should be very proactive about monitoring how well this company performs.

Items 3,8-16, 18-21, 24, 28, 29: Passed unanimously.  
Salley asked (and noted that she has repeatedly asked) for a whole picture around the work of IT, transportation, and other matters.  Monson came up again and stated that the annual budget passed every Spring provides the big picture and the monthly Action Items are the implementation of that big picture.  Fix Lopez concurred with Salley about the need to understand the bigger picture. If Board members feel that they (and the public) need more context for action items, they can direct the administration to provide more in-depth presentations. 

Board Provides Minimal Notice for New Charter Hearings
President Streater ended the meeting with an announcement that hearings for the four new charter applications will convene on December 20–5 days from this meeting.  APPS members have asked on social media why the Board has not given adequate public notice about this on their website. There is no banner on the Board of Education page or the Charter Schools page. People have to know in advance that these meetings are taking place and where to go. It takes 5 clicks in to find out the time, date, and how to register to speak before finally reaching in the fine print of the Board’s calendar. The recorded message heard by those who call to sign up to speak does not even mention the charter hearings. Charter applicants, on the other hand, are notified directly, and in contrast to the public’s two minutes, they have 15 minutes at the first meeting and unlimited time at the second. How many members of the public were still tuned in at 9:50 p.m. to hear this announcement?  (The window to sign up closes at 4:00 p.m. on Monday December 19. (Call 215-400-5959 or email schoolboard@philasd.org. Written comments can be submitted until January 27, 2023.)   

These new charter school applications are a very large concern!  All four are being submitted by current operators of failing charter schools.  The charter school sector represents one-third of the district’s budget, yet most charters fail to live up to their promise to out-perform district schools. When thinking about “big picture” plans, continuing a trend of bussing children all over the city in the face of a global climate crisis is unethical.  In light of climate alone, the “big picture” should be a solid investment in neighborhood schools.  

The Board approved spending totalling $175,647,097 at this meeting in addition to $4,500,000 authorized for Action Item 8.  For some reason, Action Items (17, 19, 24, 31) had no spending amount listed on the agenda.  You had to click on the Item to see how many millions of dollars was allocated for each of those items.  

The meeting adjourned at 9:51 PM, almost 6 hours after it began.