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Parents at Steel vote to keep school under District control; SAC goes for Mastery

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Updated | 5 p.m.

The parents at Steel Elementary School voted 121-55 to keep the school under District control, while the School Advisory Committee voted 9-8 in favor of Mastery Charter, officials announced Friday afternoon.

District spokesman Fernando Gallard said that the results of the two votes would be used to "guide [the] recommendation" of Superintendent William Hite to the School Reform Commission, which is tentatively scheduled to vote at its May 29 meeting.

About 800 parents and guardians were eligible to vote, Gallard said.

Mastery issued a statement stressing the results of the SAC vote in its favor.

"Yesterday the Steel Elementary School’s Advisory Council (SAC) voted to partner with Mastery to become a Renaissance Charter School this fall," Mastery said. "We are thankful and humbled that the school’s leaders, who visited Mastery schools and had the opportunity to carefully consider all options, decided that Mastery is the best choice for the Steel community." It did not mention the parent vote.

Jerry Jordan, head of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, congratulated the parents "for overwhelmingly uniting behind the idea that our neighborhood schools deserve to be supported, not written off and given away to the highest bidder. Now that the parents have spoken, it is incumbent on Superintendent Hite and the School Reform Commission to honor their desire for Steel to remain a traditional public school." He did not mention the SAC vote.

Mastery acknowledged that the process was "not perfect" and that parents faced "a great deal of adult noise and distractions in making their decision." It said that it hoped "in the coming weeks, the school community can come back together."

Supporters of Steel’s current administration have filed a series of grievances alleging inconsistent application of rules and tampering with the process by District officials – actions they believe were intended to sway the vote in Mastery’s favor.

Parents voted all day Thursday on the future of Steel, which, as part of the Renaissance 2014 process, is choosing whether to join the Mastery Charter network or stay District-run.

District officials and observers from the League of Women Voters said the votes of Steel’s parents were all counted as of 7 p.m. Thursday night. Officials did not want to release the results until after the official grievance-filing period ended at 8 a.m. today.

Earlier, they had said to expect a final result by noon on Friday, but it was delayed as officials considered what to do about the grievances. 

Steel supporters were vocal about their concerns. On Friday, Steel's School Advisory Council president Kendra Brooks announced that the council has filed a formal grievance with the District, alleging inconsistent enforcement of SAC rules.

According to Brooks, about 80 of the 100 applicants to join the SAC were declared ineligible, some improperly or unnecessarily, while others who should have been declared ineligible were allowed to vote.

“They have disqualified more than 80 percent of SAC parents for not following some rules, then approved others who also broke the rules,” she said. Details of the allegations are included in the SAC’s grievance with the District, she said.

In addition, a second SAC member has submitted a complaint alleging that a District official unduly influenced the SAC vote on Thursday by going out of his way to ensure that two “Mastery supporters” were tracked down in the building so they could cast their ballots.

Steel supporters say it all adds up to a process that’s being manipulated in order to achieve the desired outcome: a vote favoring Mastery.

“We do not trust the charter office, which has done all it can do to make this process as difficult and punishing as possible for parents,” Brooks said.

“We are asking the School District of Philadelphia to review these procedures and come to a quick, timely resolution. We do not want this process dragged on any further.”

Brooks said when the vote was announced that she was "excited that the community came together in support of Steel school" and would reserve further comment until after the grievances are settled and Hite makes his recommendation.

Although Mastery has not filed any grievances of its own, the charter provider has had its own concerns about the process, mainly about the possible influence of union organizers from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

"We are concerned that adults who are working closely with the PFT are using the Renaissance outreach process to distract parents from the hard facts -- Steel children have not been getting the quality education they deserve," Mastery wrote recently in a statement. "Academically, the Steel school ranks at the bottom compared to other Philadelphia elementary schools. Mastery believes that is simply not good enough for Steel families."

Advocacy around the vote at Steel has been intense in recent weeks. The activist group Parents United for Public Education was another organization involved in the lead-up to the vote at Steel -- supporting parents who favored keeping Steel as a District-run school.

Another group, Concerned Neighbors of Nicetown, called on the District to drop its plans to convert Steel to a charter.

"Enough already," said a statement from the group's president, Charisma Presley. "Now our community can get back to the work at hand which is educating our children and supporting our schools. It is time for us to heal; it is time for every community member to offer time, resources, ideas, and commitment to the future generation of Nicetown."

Two votes, one smoother than the other

When the polls closed Thursday at 7 p.m., the District tweeted, “process was smooth and without issues.”

But of the two separate votes that took place at Steel, one went more smoothly than the other.

The larger of the two votes was one for all parents and guardians, overseen by the League of Women Voters. A second vote was held for School Advisory Council members, overseen by the SAC and the District’s Charter School Office.

Neither vote is formally binding or weighted in any particular way, and both amount to recommendations to the District.

According to the League’s Heidi Gold, the all-parent vote went relatively smoothly. A total of 176 ballots were cast, she said. The votes were counted and double-checked at Steel on Thursday night before the ballot boxes were removed by school police and brought to District headquarters.

The results were clear -- “no hanging chads,” Gold said with a smile. 

However, some procedural questions about the parent vote weren’t answered until just before the polls opened. For example, only at the last minute was it determined that all adults listed with the school as a guardian would be eligible to vote. (Another option was to allow only one guardian’s vote per child.)

What’s more, voters’ moods were darkened by rumors and confusion, Gold said. “Apprehensive would be the word,” she said. “They heard a lot of different rumors going around.”

Voters had heard that they could only use a PennDOT-approved ID, for example (not true – Social Security cards and other forms of ID were acceptable). Others had heard that voting would only take place in 30-minute windows in the morning and evening.

Where those rumors came from, Gold couldn’t say. “I just know I get the calls and emails. Who started it, where it started, and for what reason, no idea.”

The School Advisory Council vote

Far less smooth and much more contentious was the second vote – that of the School Advisory Council. Much of the confusion stemmed from the District’s decision to remake and expand the SAC, which had been in place for about a year as a group of about a dozen parents and teachers.

The District decided that the SAC should have its own vote and should be bigger. Teachers, being interested parties with jobs at stake, were asked to step down. New members were to be added through a new process: Names would be submitted to the Charter School Office, and only those who attended several meetings at the school and took a tour of a Mastery school would be eligible.

Parents had about two weeks to fulfill these requirements. For many working parents, “this is a significant hardship,” Brooks said.

This and other aspects of the SAC vote left Steel supporters feeling that “the process is biased,” Brooks said.

For example, although SAC members were required to visit a Mastery school, they were not required to take a tour of a high-performing District elementary school, such as a Meredith or McCall, or of Steel itself.

But there was another odd aspect of the SAC policy. Mastery officials say that District guidelines prohibited them, and Steel, from communicating directly with SAC members in their official capacity. This left Brooks struggling to get answers about some Mastery policies – when she asked the charter provider, Mastery referred her to the District’s Charter School Office, which Brooks said took weeks to respond.

However, Mastery communicated extensively with SAC members and parents alike while taking them on tours. The difference, a Mastery spokesperson said, is that these tours are considered “informal” communication, but formal requests from a SAC president such as Brooks must be routed through the District.

“It is definitely nuanced,” the spokesperson wrote in an email. “When they are asking questions as representing other SAC members, then we are required to submit answers through the District -- which we have.”

In response to concerns about scheduling tours, Mastery has said it is "happy to schedule individual meetings" with parents, and in fact arranged a last-minute tour the night before the vote so that some SAC members could be eligible. "We want every parent to have the information they need to make this critical decision about their children’s education," a Mastery spokesperson said in an email.

Another allegation is that District officials went out of their way to ensure that two pro-Mastery SAC members voted.

SAC member Giavoni Gethers reported in a complaint to District officials today that during the SAC vote, Peng Chao of the District’s Charter School Office had Steel’s principal call two missing voters, “known Mastery Charter supporters,” on the school’s public address system to ensure they’d get their ballots counted.

“They both showed up to vote at approximately 7 p.m,” just before the polls closed, Gethers alleged. “Their two votes threw the SAC recommendation vote in Mastery’s favor.”

Outside the school Thursday night, two pro-Steel parents said they were prohibited from voting for failing to meet the Mastery-tour requirement. The irony is that they have had a child in Mastery-Gratz for years and are very familiar with the Mastery approach.

“We take the tour every year. I was just there this morning,” said one of the two, Kevin Wingfield, a Steel alumnus. He said he had “no idea” that a tour was required and believes that even if he and his wife didn’t follow the letter of the law, they were true to its spirit as informed voters and their votes should be counted.

A contentious issue

It should be no surprise that the final stages of the Steel selection process have grown contentious. The two sides undertook a spirited campaign for the school’s future, with strong feelings on both sides.

At a recent meeting at Steel, even before the final vote, Councilwoman Cindy Bass said the debate “feels very, very divided.”

It’s a tough choice, Bass said. She had only praise for Mastery, which she said has done a “great job” in the community. On the other hand, she said that the case made by Steel’s administration – that its test scores are low because of its recent expansion to include a middle school – deserve a closer look. “If that made a difference, that should be taken into account.”

What is clear, Bass said, is that the process needs work. It felt rushed and uncertain, she said. The District needs “a solid process that they can live with, ” said Bass. “It doesn’t feel, after all these years, that they’ve done that yet.”

And when the process goes bad, people get upset, Bass said. “It doesn’t matter if you give me a lobster, if you serve it to me on a garbage can lid,” she said. “The process matters – how you serve something to someone makes a difference in terms of whether they’re really going to buy into it or not.”

Brooks is hoping for a quick resolution to all of this. “We just want this to be over so we can get back to educating our children.”

All photos by Harvey Finkle.

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Bill Hangley Jr. is a freelance contributor to the Notebook.