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Philly school board silences teachers, parents, and students with new meeting structure | Opinion

This board cannot achieve any of their stated goals unless they repair the trust and relationships with the people in the schools: the students, families, and teachers.

Philadelphia Board of Education President Joyce Wilkerson.
Philadelphia Board of Education President Joyce Wilkerson.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia schools freed themselves from the state control of the School Reform Commission thanks to the sustained activism of numerous parents, teachers, and students across the city. But now that we have a school board appointed by the mayor, the current board and superintendent seem determined, at every opportunity, to shut out the voices of those they serve.

With the unveiling of their new “Goals and Guardrails,” the board has promised a renewed focus, but they have repeatedly shown contempt for our voices. According to the school board, Goals and Guardrails aims to prioritize diverse voices and to create time for the board to spend more of its time scrutinizing the administration on academic performance.

This board cannot achieve any of their stated goals unless they repair the trust and relationships with the people in the schools: the students, families, and teachers.

» READ MORE: Some Philly kids can finally return to school next month after nearly a year away. Reactions are mixed.

Instead, the board has responded to increased education activism by introducing a raft of new policies designed to silence the participation of their main constituents.

Changes include limiting the number of speakers at each board meeting to 10 students and 30 members of the general public and restricting each speaker to two minutes. The board has replaced committee meetings — which were the only chance for the public to comment on initiatives before they come to a vote at action meetings — with written comments that are little more than a suggestion box.

The proposed community conversations, which are supposed to happen four or five times a year, are not a replacement for the monthly committee meetings and show that the board sees engagement as little more than a coffee hour.

There have been plenty of speakers at action meetings over the last few years who have tried to tell the board and district about the issues “revealed” in Thursday night’s marathon Goals and Guardrails meeting — if they had been listening.

Similarly, parents implored the district and board at a lengthy pair of meetings over the summer not to reopen schools last fall. One of the biggest problems with district leadership is that they spend too much time listening to consultants instead of listening to the people, which is not only disrespectful to those of us who care deeply about our schools but leads invariably to wasteful spending and inefficiency.

This was true of that initial reopening process, which wasted precious time and money on plans that went straight into the trash when reality finally hit. It is true again now, with Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. announcing a new reopening date after the opportunity to submit any kind of testimony had closed, instead focusing on the perspectives they want to hear to support the moves they’ve already chosen to make.

» READ MORE: Most Philly kids off track on reading; school board grills Hite

If Hite and the board are tired of the marathon meetings, then they could always consider not making historically unpopular decisions.

If too much time is being taken up by speakers, then they could cut into the seemingly limitless time given to charter authorizers and consultants looking for contracts, instead of taking away one of the already paltry three minutes given to the people who are actually part of the district community.

The board could stop giving do-overs on votes that should’ve been settled, like the monumentally foolish Hilco tax break that was killed the first time after public outcry, only to rear its head at the next meeting until they got the desired result.

If nothing else, if Hite and the Board of Education do not want to spend their Thursday nights listening to the voices of the people, then they should resign.

The board can claim they’re listening, but at a certain point, when nothing changes, perception is reality. And right now, the perception among people who dedicate hours of their free time to fight for the schools they love is that one of the few doors left open to them is being slammed in their faces.

District leadership may believe they can solve all their problems by silencing any voices calling them out. But in the words of our inaugural poet Amanda Gorman, “We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace.” If they can’t listen, then they should quit. If they won’t, then it’s on Mayor Jim Kenney and City Council to make them.

Stephanie King is the president of Kearny Friends, the community group supporting Gen. Philip Kearny School in Northern Liberties.