Board turns its back on students, parents, and educators with its vote to delay
Elections have consequences. So do non-elections.
At last week’s action meeting, the appointed Board of Education turned its back on the people of Philadelphia, both literally and figuratively, when it voted to delay action on the School District’s flawed reopening plan. The move represented a display of contempt for the public not seen since the School Reform Commission voted in 2013 to close 23 schools.
For seven hours, the board hid behind a countdown clock screen while more than 100 parents, educators, students, and community members urged the board to reject the plan. They expressed fear for the safety of their children and themselves. They pointed to the many holes in the plan. They asked how parents could make decisions based on incomplete and contradictory information. Not one speaker advocated for passage of the agenda item on reopening, which was in the form of a “health and safety plan” submitted to the state.
The board’s response was to misrepresent what parents had just told them, to waffle, to rationalize, and ultimately, to decide that saving face for the administration took precedence over taking immediate action to protect the health and safety of the city’s children.
The board’s actions during the week before the meeting foreshadowed its betrayal. They posted the agenda for the meeting just 72 hours before, not the required two weeks. Thus members of the public had only a few days to read and research the 26 items that proposed more than $160 million in District spending, not to mention reviewing the updated 28-page reopening plan.
The board’s gaslighting continued into the meeting itself, beyond the board members’ secreting themselves behind the digital veil. Board President Joyce Wilkerson appeared after the last speaker on action items to state that they were going to bring up the speakers on general topics rather than proceed with the voting. Actually, Wilkerson was unilaterally amending the official agenda, with no public vote by the board. Because not one board member objected or asked for an explanation, it appeared that this had been cleared by them behind the scenes. In fact, Wilkerson could be heard earlier on an open mic asking someone, presumably Superintendent William Hite, “So do you want to recess before we vote on anything?” Conducting ad hoc executive sessions during a meeting, without notifying the public or giving a specific reason why, is illegal, as it constitutes a violation of Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act.
But this is nearly the same board that scurried out of the auditorium last year when protests erupted after its vote on metal detectors, then reconvened in secret in a locked room and refused entrance to members of the public — something even the SRC never did when the going got rough.
For more than seven hours, the board heard from speakers who pleaded with them not to approve the administration’s hybrid plan. Parents, teachers, principals, and students told the board in no uncertain terms that the plan did not make it safe for them or their children to be inside school buildings all day. One parent asked whether the administration had submitted “a plan or a wish list.” Several said that the District had not provided enough information about enrolling in the digital academy or how that might destabilize their neighborhood schools. Another said she was “terrified” that one of her children would become sick and die.
One principal told the board that her present medical condition would prevent her from returning. Robin Cooper, president of the principals’ union, implored the board not to force her members to “educate our children to death.” Not one person urged the board to approve the plan. It seemed that the board had no choice but to reject Hite’s plan.
So it came as a shock when board Vice President Leticia Egea-Hinton, in response to a request from Hite, introduced a motion to recess the meeting for a week. Hite had asked the board to take some time and “review” the public statements and to allow him to revise the plan. Wilkerson again violated the Sunshine Act by not inviting public comment on the motion.
An incredulous Angela McIver, one of the board members, said that it would be a “horrible” move to make people sit through seven hours of testimony only to take no action. She reminded the board that they had engaged in debates earlier this year on whether to ban children who were not vaccinated but were now considering sending them to school during a deadly pandemic without adequate testing or monitoring tools. McIver pointed out that the District had heard from stakeholders through surveys and town halls over the last two months and had now heard unanimous opposition to any in-person reopening. The vote to recess passed 6-2, with McIver and Lee Huang dissenting.
The vote to delay action in a time of crisis essentially cancelled the students, parents, teachers, and principals who pleaded with them to protect them and their children. The board members who voted to recess the meeting sent a clear message — that they would always take the side of the powers that be over them. Those six board members should resign so that leaders who respect the will of the District’s parents, students, and educators can take charge.
Lisa Haver is a retired Philadelphia teacher and co-founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools.