With a pandemic afoot and a controversial school reopening plan on the table, city parents, teachers, and concerned citizens have plenty to say to the Philadelphia school board.
Because of changes to the school board’s public comment policy, there are now limited slots in which to say it.
“It’s a step backward,” said Tatyana Roldan, a senior at Northeast High School. “If you say they want to hear us, why are you silencing us?”
The board recently shifted its strategy overseeing the Philadelphia School District, shaking up board meetings, and adding more time on scrutinizing academic achievement. It also moved to limit the number of speakers — from no limit to 10 students and 30 members of the public — and cut from three minutes to two the amount of time each can address the board.
The changes, board president Joyce Wilkerson said, aim to amplify diverse voices: Students and new speakers are prioritized.
Wilkerson has said this was in part a reaction to a meeting in last July, when opponents of in-person school reopening packed a virtual board session that lasted eight hours and included public comment from more than 100 people. Nearly all of the speakers blasted Superintendent William R. Hite’s reopening plan, which was ultimately scotched. Wilkerson said those speakers did not reflect the sentiments of the entire community.
“It turns out there was a whole community that wanted their kids to go back,” she said. “Just relying exclusively on those people who speak out at board meetings has not been as effective as we need it to be to make decisions as a board.”
Around the region and across the country, guidelines vary; Seattle allows up to 25 speakers; Chicago 30; Pittsburgh, Central Bucks and Downingtown’s policies allow unlimited speakers.
Philadelphia’s school board also collapsed its committee structure, which allowed for the public to weigh in on business before it was voted on. But it is adding several “community conversations,” hosted by the board’s Parent and Community Advisory Council, for the purpose of hearing feedback from the public, and answering questions about agenda items in writing before meetings.
Jesse Gottschalk, a district teacher, said he understood the board’s larger intentions.
“But what we see is you replacing this public forum with smaller ones and new procedures that you have full control over,” Gottschalk, a teacher at Lea Elementary, said at Thursday’s meeting. Teachers, students, and parents were hopeful that the end of the state-controlled School Reform Commission in 2018 would mean the community’s voices would be heard, he said, but “the administration continues to fail in issues big and small at authentic engagement and meaningful collaboration with these stakeholders, to their own harm.”
At Thursday’s meeting, too much time was given to board voices, retired teachers Lisa Haver and Karel Kilimnik — founders of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools — said in a letter sent to the board Monday. No members of the public were heard from until nearly three hours into the evening meeting, discouraging parents with children to care for and teachers with lessons to plan from speaking out.
“The board should not be using this time of public isolation to shut the public out even more,” Haver and Kilimnik wrote.
The new policy feels like a slap in the face, Youma Diabira, a senior at Central High School, said in an interview.
“They never regard our opinions,” she said of the board and district leaders. “They never take into consideration how we feel, and it shows in a lot of the things that they do.”
Board member Mallory Fix Lopez said she understands that in many ways, perception is reality and some see the changes as stifling public voice. But, she said, ultimately, she and other board members see the new steps as critical to helping them make larger changes in the district.
“I think,” said Fix Lopez, “that they’re going to see how their testimony goes into action.”