Citing a “failure of leadership,” Philadelphia’s principals' union has lost faith in Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. and is asking members of the community to sign a no-confidence petition.
“Superintendents are tasked with three duties: keeping students safe, educating them, and fiscal stewardship. Dr. Hite has failed at all three,” the leadership of the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators wrote in a petition that had garnered more than 1,500 signatures by late Sunday afternoon.
It is a dramatic, unprecedented step for the union, whose members have not traditionally been vocal in criticizing district leadership.
But Robin Cooper, president of CASA, which represents 650 principals and other administrators, said the time has come. Hite and his leadership team practice the kind of top-down micromanagement that makes it difficult for principals to do their jobs, Cooper said, and things have worsened during the pandemic.
“He’s created a hostile environment," Cooper said. Her union did not take a vote authorizing the petition, but she said it expressed the sentiments of her members.
Tensions between principals and the administration have run particularly high since COVID-19 hit, Cooper said. Now, many are unhappy that administrators will soon have to physically report to their schools, though students won’t return to buildings until at least mid-November.
Hite has said that principals are needed to supervise building engineers and cleaners who are currently working inside schools and the support staff who will soon come back; those workers typically interact directly with children, but will be directed to perform other tasks to ready buildings. Cooper said that without students, there will be little work for those employees.
“Returning to school buildings without children is just risking our health unnecessarily, and it makes no sense,” said Cooper. This is not about her members wanting to work, she said, or being difficult to get along with: It’s a fundamental lack of respect for the quantity and quality of work administrators have done keeping schools afloat, during the pandemic and prior to it.
Asked to comment on the no-confidence petition, district spokesperson Monica Lewis said the school system is “grateful for the hard work that all of our staff, including school leaders, teachers and custodial staff, have been safely performing both remotely and on-site in our schools and offices since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Our school leaders have done amazing work supporting our students, families and school-based staff as we began the year with students engaged in digital learning."
Lewis said “extensive health and safety” protocols will be enforced as principals and other staff are phased back into schools and offices.
School board member Mallory Fix Lopez, who has publicly raised concerns about Hite’s leadership, said Sunday that she took seriously the board’s responsibility to hold the superintendent accountable and that Hite’s evaluation is upcoming.
“If principals are not confident in leadership, I do find that concerning,” Fix Lopez said.
The petition points to errors by the Hite administration on building conditions, particularly around the error-ridden construction project at Benjamin Franklin High School. Inquirer reporting and an Inspector General’s report concluded that on the project, begun to co-locate Science Leadership Academy inside Ben Franklin, the district ignored warning signs, rushed crucial work, wasted money, and endangered students and staff.
It also calls out Hite for the incremental academic gains made during his tenure, and suggests his often-stated goals of focusing on equity in schools are just lip service. CASA has called for a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion office; the superintendent has said he wants diversity, equity and inclusion to be the work of all offices and has convened an equity committee that will soon begin meeting.
Cooper says the committee “has no teeth.”
“Time for change,” one petition signer wrote.
“Dr. Hite and his leadership, throughout his tenure, have placed our students in harm’s way,” the petition states. “The failure of his leadership has centered around a lack of attention to diversity, equity and inclusion, showing a pattern of negligence in addressing issues of environment, fiscal irresponsibility, instruction and climate and culture in the School District of Philadelphia.”
In late August, the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, a small group made up of mostly retired district educators, called for Hite’s resignation.
Founders Lisa Haver and Karel Kilimnik, in a letter to the board, cited “the many revelations contained in the Inspector General’s report of the Hite administration’s failure to protect the health and safety of the students and staff of Benjamin Franklin and SLA high schools.”
Hite is paid $317,902 a year to run the district, which educates about 125,000 students in 200-plus schools. His contract runs through August 2022.
The principals' action comes as the district is in the midst of negotiating a teachers' contract. The 13,000-member Philadelphia Federation of Teachers contract expired Aug. 31; president Jerry Jordan has said that the school system insists any salary increases are tied to the PFT’s agreeing to a school reopening plan.