Commentary: Crisis is no justification for thwarting democratic practice
As the city of New Orleans struggled to restore itself to some semblance of normal life after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the agents of school privatization moved in. Even before many teachers and students could return to their homes, their neighborhood schools had been converted to charter schools, until only a handful of public schools were left. During that period of upheaval, when most school board meetings were cancelled, public schools became low-hanging fruit for charter investors.
On a smaller scale, but in the same vein, the Board of Education approved an item at its March action meeting that ceded many of its own powers to Superintendent William Hite. This measure allows decisions on expenditures and contracts to be made without public oversight and opens the door to potential violations of Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act, which requires that agencies deliberate and act on business in open and public meetings.
Item 55, posted just hours before the meeting began, cites the COVID-19 crisis as justification. If there were any compelling reason for this transfer of power from a nine-person representative body to one administrator, the board would have given one during the meeting or in the body of the item itself. But the board did not. Because it was posted at the last minute and because the logistics of the meeting severely limited the public’s ability to process it and comment on it, the board had an obligation to give sound reasons for this item’s passage.
The board voted to give Hite the power to suspend “in whole or in part, board policies and/or administrative procedures” in order to, among other things, “enter into or amend contracts, without competitive procurement and with adjustment of pre-audit procedures while still maintaining internal financial controls; enter into memorandum of understanding; and accept grants, gifts, and donations in connection with COVID-19 efforts.”
Board President Joyce Wilkerson told the Inquirer that there are built-in safeguards, citing the clause that states “individual contracts and expenditures…of more than $1 million should be made in consultation with the Board President.” But a private consultation with the board president does not provide for any public notification at the time of the expenditure.
The board oversees a $3 billion budget and approves contracts every month — after public examination and comment. Grants and donations must be accepted by public vote in order to examine their mandates and assure that they follow the Hite administration’s commitment to equity. Just last month, the board responded to testimony from several speakers on one contract for professional development by tabling the item until further deliberation could take place at the next committee meeting. Passage of Item 55 effectively curtails the rights of the public under the Sunshine Act to observe and participate in decisions that are supposed to be made by this governmental body at a public meeting.
People understand that things are not normal during a pandemic. They can understand why temporary adjustments have to be made. But the board must take care to carry out its duties in the most transparent way possible. There are ways other than a blanket suspension of rules in a kind of war powers act to expedite official business when necessary.
If a situation arises in which Hite must take quick action and for some reason is bound by established policies, the board can call an emergency meeting with just 24 hours of public notice. In fact, it is now even easier to do so because members do not have to travel to District headquarters. Phone lines and live-stream equipment can be used.
At its April action meeting, the board should honor its obligation to the people of the city and vote no on any extension of this item.
Lisa Haver is a retired Philadelphia teacher and co-founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools.