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Parents United wins open-records request on BCG school-closings list

By Helen Gym on Apr 25, 2013 03:21 PM

Parents United for Public Education has won its state Right To Know request to gain public access to the list of 60 schools identified by the Boston Consulting Group for closure and to the firm’s criteria for school closings -- a request for information that the District has consistently denied to the public.

Last spring, the Boston Consulting Group came under intense criticism for a plan that promoted school closings, massive charter expansion, and privatization of key functions within the District, such as transportation. Under its multimillion-dollar contract with the William Penn Foundation, BCG agreed to provide the foundation a number of “contract deliverables,” one of which was identifying 60 schools for closure. The “BCG list” was referred to by former Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen in public statements, but District officials had refused to release the list, stating that it was an internal document and therefore protected from public review.

In December 2012, Parents United filed a complaint with the City Ethics Board about whether the contract between the William Penn Foundation and BCG amounted to lobbying (as opposed to philanthropy). Shortly after, with help from the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, we decided to pursue the BCG list of school closings and criteria with the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records.

Our question was simple: Given the fact that Boston Consulting Group had a contract with the William Penn Foundation and not the District, could the District prove that BCG’s school-closings list had never been shared with anyone else? Had it truly been kept internal?

The District provided two affidavits from Chief Counsel Michael Davis and Knudsen, both of whom failed to answer the question. As the OOR ruling states:

However, the affidavits do not clearly address whether the William Penn Foundation, the party that paid for Boston’s services, had access to the withheld records. The OOR specifically requested whether the William Penn Foundation, or any other third party, had access to the withheld records. ... It is the District’s burden to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, each element of a claimed exemption. Based on the evidence before it, the OOR cannot conclude that the withheld records were “internal” to the District.

Why should this matter to us?

The closing of 24 schools was the single most important issue of the year. Throughout most of the decision-making process, the public was kept purposefully in the dark. The District argued that it was working closely with consultants to create an internal list that it would share with the public when it was ready. But what if others had access to that list? What if others had a chance to weigh in, shape the criteria, vet the list before it became a public announcement? That should matter and matter deeply to all of us.

It is absolutely the public’s right to know what’s in those documents, especially when BCG officials made contractual "deliverable" promises and had unfettered access to top District leaders to promote their list of school closings. It doesn’t matter whether the BCG list became the final list. It matters that the District has failed to understand how the lines separating public good from private interests have been blurred, if not crossed, on issues of dramatic importance to parents, students, and community members.

This situation is not unique.

In December 2012, Newark parents won a Right to Know case gaining access to communications between the mayor’s office and officials from Facebook who donated over $100 million to reform Newark schools. The parents argued they had a right to know whether Newark leaders, including Mayor Cory Booker, had promised Facebook officials how the donation would be spent ahead of a public process.

We pursued this case because we believe school reform relies on transparency and a vibrant public process. As soon as the District releases the list, we will publish the full list and the criteria on the Parents United website.

You can read the ruling at Office of Open Records website.

 

Helen Gym is co-founder of Parents United for Public Education, an editor at "Rethinking Schools," and a contributor to and former board member of the Notebook.


The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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Comments (17)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 25, 2013 4:03 pm
Nice going, Phila. residents have a right to know what's going on in OUR city with our schools, and our kids. These backroom deals along with the master plan for the closure process are not acceptable.
Submitted by Eileen Duffey (not verified) on April 25, 2013 4:56 pm
Thank you Helen for your consistent advocacy for public schools and for your clear understanding of the consequences of blurring the distinction between public good and private interests. With the dearth of leadership willing to speak up for these values, we need you more than ever. Stay strong.
Submitted by Education Grad ... on April 25, 2013 11:45 pm
Well said, Eileen! Education Grad Students
Submitted by Education Grad ... on April 26, 2013 12:05 am
Education Grad Student*
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on April 25, 2013 5:48 pm
May I also chime in with my thanks and appreciation to you Helen, Michael Churchill, and Ms. Diaz, if she argued on our behalf, too. I am especially appreciative because I have been working all week on an explanation of the legal ramifications of the blurring of the public vs. private issues and what they mean to the rights of all stakeholders in schools. What constantly amazes me is that the supposed caretakers of public education continually attempt to deprive citizens of their rights under the law. I will put a copy of your hard fought decision right here on my computer desktop! Thanks!
Submitted by Helen Gym on April 25, 2013 5:00 pm

Thanks Rich! FYI Jessica Diaz works for the District. The Office of Open Records deserves a lot of praise for their mission and work.

Submitted by Veteran of the West Philadelphia "Renaissance" (not verified) on April 25, 2013 6:04 pm
Awesome victory. Helen, Pilcop, Office of Open Records -- thank you!
Submitted by Helen Gym on April 25, 2013 6:09 pm

I'll be interested to see what the list says and why the District found it so necessary to keep it under wraps.

Submitted by Education Grad ... on April 26, 2013 12:01 am
Helen, The District's higher ups tried to keep this under wraps because of the "privileged" information about the wheeling and dealing going on behind the scenes. There are people and organizations, such as the BCG, making very important decisions and contributions for the SDP who have no business doing so. People who have nothing to hide, hide nothing. It's just that simple. EGS
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on April 26, 2013 8:38 am
Exactly! There is only one reason for secrecy -- wrongdoing.
Submitted by diraj (not verified) on April 25, 2013 7:24 pm
thats not a victory a victory is audit the school district for the last 20 years and audit every politicians finances and investments who had any involvement in the charter school scams and uprising. investigate the back door dealings and also investigate why for the last 20 years were the HS seniors GPA average on their report cards incorrect ex. A student with straight A's given a GPA average of 3.2 or Students with straight A's and B's given a GPA of 2.8. Why were the GPA averages falsely reported and it is sad that those parents were uneducated in what GPA averages are and the students never paid it no attention. They may have fixed it now, but the Graduates 2 years ago and longer were cheated out of college scholarships. Is that one way the SRC and school district able to close so many so called under achievers. Strawberry Mansion HS is one of the schools who had an antiquated system for averaging GPA scores but they had a lot of 3.8 and 4.0 average students, who worked hard but got cheated out of correct GPA averages
Submitted by Gtown_teach (not verified) on April 25, 2013 8:15 pm
That's great Helen! It's important to shine light on unethical, back-room deals. I'm sure it will give us a better picture of how monied interests want to dissect public education for profit.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 26, 2013 12:12 am
Helen, my hopes are pinned on YOU, Parents United and some public epiphany that we all must have a hand in, Stay steady and strong!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 26, 2013 8:28 am
you are a true champion Helen. Thank you for all you do.
Submitted by garth (not verified) on April 26, 2013 9:35 am
I think it's kind of creepy that the folks in Harrisburg have so much control over public education in Philadelphia. Can we really trust their decisions on important things like which schools should stay open? They control the SRC and selected Hite, but I've never been convinced that they have the best interests of a large city like Philadelphia, or its students in mind. I also feel the same way about the Boston Consulting Group, how well do they or their staff from New England know the city of Philadelphia, and are they really trying to help the PSD or is there some secret agenda being pushed by heavy hitters in Harrisburg? As a public school parent, I'd have more faith if Philadelphia had 3 of the 5 SRC votes, or if we went back to a regular Board of Education. Then we'd hire someone like Helen as a consultant, and at least we'd all know that Philadelphia best interests were really being properly represented.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 26, 2013 12:38 pm
Has Mr. Hite rented an apartment in Philadelphia or does he just sleep at an Extended Stay?
Submitted by Eve (not verified) on June 29, 2013 3:31 pm
The School District of Philadelphia and the mayor keep saying we have empty seats... Are empty seats within classrooms calculated based on a classroom size of 40 seats in a classroom? 33 seats in a class room? If you have a classroom that can hold 50 seats, and only 30 seats are taken up, do you count the 20 seats as empty? I would nope not. With the issues of our children today, and the economic and societal pressures on parents (divorced, working two or more jobs) we can not play with "the empty seat" theory. There should be no more than 25 students in a classroom. We know that children learn better when there are fewer children in a class, especially students that are dealing with other urban issues. Stop the empty seat nonsense and educate, not imprison our future! If we can find the money for the athletes and the stadium, we can find it for our babies.

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