On the day the Pennsylvania state legislature approved a budget that supported school spending for the following year, the Philadelphia Board of Education unanimously approved a revised budget of its own, while authorizing millions in capital expenditure and renewing two charter schools.
But with the District strategy for September still being formed in private, the council also heard calls to increase community involvement when planning to reopen schools.
“Families come to me with the worries they want [bring] to the District, and they don’t think the District is listening. These families are injured, “said parent lawyer Cecelia Thomson.
District officials, who developed their reopening plan with the help of ten separate internal working groups, promised to immediately contact parents to learn about community priorities and problems for September.
“We will survey teachers, as well as families … just to inform the options or scenarios we make next year,” said Inspector William Hite. The survey will come out in early June, he said. “We can use that information when we start making plans … it’s not a one size fits all solutions to this problem.”
Thompson, a member of the council’s advisory committee for community involvement, said that the survey alone was inadequate. He asked the District to hold a virtual town hall style meeting that would allow parents to express their own concerns, especially where special education and English language students were involved.
“Usually surveys have questions that lead to targeted results. I recommend the Zoom session, “Thompson said – preferably some, he added, to accommodate parents’ busy schedules.
Earlier on Thursday, Hite told reporters that the District would plan around three basic scenarios in September – a full return to the building, a completely virtual semester, and some sort of hybrid. At a council meeting on Thursday, he further explained that the exact plans for each school could vary depending on the availability of space and staff. Even if several schools can hold classes, Hite said, “there will be individual schools which for various reasons need to continue working remotely.”
Districts must provide the “flexibility needed” to enable each school to develop its own mix of classrooms and virtual learning, Hite said.
The prospect of entering a new school year with so few clear standards for safety, scheduling and academic support makes some parents and advocates worry that the equity gap will widen as schools pursue their plans with whatever community resources they can gather.
“Dr. Hite has mentioned several times that solutions might look different across communities,” said Zoe Rooney, a teacher at Strawberry Mansion High and advocating with Parents United for Public Education. “This method usually works is injustice that is compounded … It looks like special acceptance will be able to make their own way forward, while we are all burdened with District requirements. “
Thursday’s meeting touched on a number of other topics, including graduation plans. The district will hold a virtual ceremony and a “birthday party” for the 2020 class on June 9, officials said, and board members and public speakers shared their appreciation.
“As a parent of a senior graduate, I just want to thank the District … it really matters to students who have lost this transitional ritual,” board member Angela McIver said. “I’m really sad for all students.”
“We really see the effort you made to make this impressive for us,” said Doha Ibrahim, a Lincoln high school student and one of the two student council representatives.
But by September, Ibrahim also received a warning for the District: his new online learning option did not get good reviews. During a recent group call with fellow District students, Ibrahim said, he and fellow student representative Imere Williams delivered the message loud and clear.
“They feel that the work they have received is not challenging at all,” Ibrahim said. “Students for our call define it as ‘busy work,’ and I can testify to that too.”
Revised budget approved: “better position than most”
The Board approved a revised budget for the current school year, a task made significantly easier by Pennsylvania’s legislative decision to funding schools at the current level for the next 12 months. The DPR passed its budget bill a few days ago, and the Senate approved it only hours before Thursday’s council meeting.
“A lot has happened in the last 48 hours,” said Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson. The decision of the General Assembly increased the District’s anticipated revenue by around $ 70 million, and allowed the District to end this year and fiscal year 2021 with a modest fund balance.
The decision of the General Assembly also allows Mayor Jim Kenney back out of the plan for local property tax increases.
In the long run, however, shrinking state and local tax revenues and increasing District costs – including the anticipated next year of an increase of $ 114 million in charter payments – darken the district’s long-term budget picture, Monson said. But between the relatively healthy fiscal position and the political support it received from Mayor Jim Kenney, Governor Tom Wolf and other policy makers, the District is in better shape than many other large urban systems, Monson said.
“I’m part of a group of forty or fifty CFOs from districts throughout the country,” he said. “We are in some ways in a better position [than most] … Some school districts have experienced cuts this year, even before they deal with problems next year. “
The decision of the General Assembly to fully fund public education is a great help for district officials and advocates. The Pennsylvania School Board Association said the new state plan “provides the certainty needed by school districts for their own budget planning.”
In Philadelphia, the Center for Educational Law noted that the Harrisburg decision represented a welcome departure from the past practice of lawmakers.
“Pennsylvania legislators recognize that not making our school further cuts is a must,” said ELC executive director Deborah Gordon Klehr. “This is a sign of progress, which reflects years of advocacy on the importance of state education funding.”
But Klehr added that “there is still a lot of work left” to solve “the problem of inadequate and unfair school funding.” Among the ELC recommendations: use a portion of Pennsylvania $ 3.9 billion in unused federal stimulus dollars, provided by the recently passed CARES law, to support schools.
“Some of the money must be used to help schools cope with increasing needs,” Klehr said, including summer programs, online learning support, and programs for special education students and English language students.
The council thanked Monson and his team for their work of balancing the budget, but Mallory Fix Lopez members urged District officials, defenders and fellow councilors to think carefully about their own agenda.
“That would probably be an unpopular statement, but it is important to move forward that we … prioritize some of our desires,” Fix Lopez said. “Many of us want libraries, many of us want air conditioning … but this is a time when we have to be realistic and honest with each other, “he said.” I hope that all of us as cities will work together and all are on the same page. “
Summer program: virtual opportunities by thousands
District officials outline a new “virtual” raft of programs for the summer, hoping that their new offer will help prevent or reverse the “learning loss” that accompanies the coronavirus shutdown.
“Many programs have a June 12 registration target,” Hite said. “Spread the word.”
Overall, said Hite, the District will offer around 35,000 slots in various online programs, including:
– Penn Rising Senior Summer Academy (PennRSSA) will offer a mix of academic support and “virtual” mental health to 2,500 District students. This program promises “inclusive” and “radical” pedagogy, which is supported by Penn students and postgraduate educators. The program is valued at $ 1.2 million but is offered with “no fees to the district,” McIver board member said. This is open to every student who has completed 11th class.
– Board approved $ 400,000 for the Philadelphia Youth Network summer internship program which promises to offer “meaningful work-based learning and academic enrichment experiences.” This program will offer 260 slots.
– The board also approved $ 116,000 for the PYN summer entrepreneurship program, Starting EDU, serving 75 middle school students (grades 9-12).
– Hite announced a new initiative for young students called “Soar,” an academic support program for grades 3-7 that aims to reach 20,000 students.
– Hite also announced an extended summer school program for special education students. The program, which served 4,000 students last year, will serve 8,500 students this year.
– Summer language programs for English learners will have 1,000 slots.
Even when the coronavirus ruined many plans, the District capital program continued to emerge, sparked by the issuance of $ 500 million worth of bonds this year. Hite said that the District was doing six major building renovations, as well as upgrading modernization to 147 classrooms, and repairing asbestos in 40 schools.
Thursday, the board approved several projects including:
– A $ 2.1 million boiler replacement at Sayre High;
– About $ 20 million for renovations and additions to Anne Frank Elementary;
– Around $ 4.1 million to be repaired flood damage at Duckrey Elementary;
– Around $ 14 million for roof replacement in six schools: Palumbo, Penrose, Taggart, Jackson, LP Hill and Greenfield
– Around $ 1.3 million for asbestos removal in Cassidy, Ethan Allen and Sayre.
The board also approved a total of $ 5.8 million for changes in construction and renovations at Ben Franklin High / SLA (“modification of active construction contracts”). Of that amount, $ 3.4 million was used to “complete the asbestos reduction work in the auditorium and modify the work of existing science laboratories and to provide gas services down at the 4th and 5th floor science laboratories.”
Charter was agreed without comment – or price tag
The Council unanimously approved a five-year extension for two charter schools: Mastery of Frederick Douglas, a Renaissance school of about 775 students, and Russell Byers Charter School, a traditional lottery-based charter of around 725 students.
There are no schools with academic achievements, and both have administrative problems. District assessments show that the two have lagged behind “similar schools” in most academic fields. However, the Charter School Office recommends both for renewal. That calls for “conditions” for Mastery Douglas, but does not determine what those conditions are.
The Charter School Office does not make presentations to discuss schools or their performance, and the board chooses to approve both updates unanimously (with one vote) without comment.
Some parents apparently praised Mastery. “I am happy to say that this school was better than expected,” said Khadija Ali’s parents. “This is a school that gets things done and listens to our needs.”
But advocates from the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools (APPS) tore up the council’s decision, accusing it of hiding the reform process even as it called for reforms in the country’s charter law and funding formula. The “conditions” described in the update remain unknown to the public, said Lisa Haver of APPS, as were the potential costs of the renewal.
“A five-year extension will cost taxpayers a minimum of $ 100 million over the next five years,” said Haver, who with APPS has long demanded that the council share all the conditions and costs associated with renewing the charter. Under the new locally-controlled school board, the reform process is growing more opaque, said Haver, not more transparent. The council and the public did not even hear the presentation from the Charter School Office, he said – a routine practice under the School Reform Commission that had left.
“The council has the right to call for reform of the Pennsylvania charter law, but the council has hidden every step of the renewal process,” Haver said.
Adding fellow APPS Haver member, Diane Payne: “The council is interested in public discourse, or not … too much has been done behind closed doors. “
Business council: new officers, new members
The council held elections for officers, re-elected Council President Joyce Wilkerson unanimously. “It will lose for him to step down,” board member Julia Danzy said.
“I’m flattered,” Wilkerson said. “It’s great working with everyone.”
For the vice president, the council chose members of Leticia Egea-Hinton to replace Wayne Walker, who resigned for personal reasons. “This is truly a learning experience,” Egea-Hinton said. “I am honored.”
New board member Ameen Akbar, a former charter school administrator specializing in “Youth Development“Join the council for its first action meeting. Akbar was silent most of the night, but took a moment to praise the work of the student council representatives, especially their success in connecting with their peers through social media and the explosion of e-mail.
District administrators struggle to reach out to students and families when they leave school, Akbar said, and they can learn a lot from the networking skills shown by two student representatives. “Associating with young students will lead the way,” Akbar said.
Board members welcomed Akbar, Masterman High alumni and Penn State whose experience included organizing a mentoring program and training basketball.
“This is definitely the weirdest time to join the school board,” said Fix Lopez member, before urging Akbar and other board members to think creatively about the challenges ahead.
“We have just been appointed to the second position … to be rookies no longer support,” Fix Lopez said. “We must be brave enough to take actions that are consistent with our message, to move forward, and not be afraid.”
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