Just weeks into the new school year, Philadelphia school communities find themselves already dealing with chaos. Parents, students, and school staff, many navigating toxic floodwaters after a devastating storm, were not notified of the district’s decision to open schools late until two hours after the first bell.
Students at several district schools had to avoid mountains of trash left in schoolyards on their first day back.
The district has revised bell schedules and school calendars with a stunning disregard for the needs of parents.
In June, when The Inquirer Editorial Board asked City Council members what their priorities would be for the 2021-2022 session, education was barely mentioned — not even by the chair of Council’s Education Committee.
Another recent editorial lamented the erosion of trust between councilmembers’ constituents and city institutions, including between the school community and the Board of Education that “have been exacerbated during the pandemic, which Council could ameliorate by finding ways to navigate and, hopefully, reduce.”
One cause of that erosion is the systematic rollback of public engagement and the board’s speaker suppression policies. The board now caps the number of speakers and cuts speakers off at two minutes. Members of the public may not speak at two consecutive monthly meetings — so a parent who asks at the September board meeting why the bus doesn’t pick her child up in the morning and is assured that the problem will be solved, can’t come back in October and ask why it wasn’t.
But that doesn’t seem to be a concern for councilmembers. Some have joined protests at schools where teachers refused to enter toxic buildings. But other than one letter signed by a handful of councilmembers sent last February, Council has been largely silent on the silencing of its constituents by the board.
Then again, Council itself doesn’t seem interested in hearing from district parents, educators, or students. The Education Committee, chaired by Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, has not held a public meeting since last April. The committee does, however, hold private sessions with board members and district leadership twice a month. The public has no way to know what issues are discussed, or whether any committee member has objected to the board’s speaker suppression. Have councilmembers asked for an explanation of why the board failed to hold Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. or his staff responsible for the Ben Franklin/Science Leadership Academy debacle?
Did they ask why the board had no public response to the statement of “no-confidence” in Hite issued by the district’s principals last year?
If they did, then apparently they have been satisfied with the board’s answers. When the board does not hold Superintendent Hite accountable, and Council, whose oversight of the board grew under the newly amended Home Rule Charter, does not hold the board accountable, we can only expect more incompetence and miscommunication from the district.
Mayor Jim Kenney has also found a way to shut out parents, educators, and community members who care about education. When Kenney gets around to convening his nominating panel to fill the latest board vacancy, we can likely expect him again to have them hold all meetings behind closed doors, in clear violation of the state’s Sunshine Act.
Every other Pennsylvanian has the right to choose their representatives on local school boards. Philadelphians, already disenfranchised, have no way to know who applies for seats on the board, what nominees stand for, what their vision for education is, or how they want to spend the district’s $3.2 billion annual budget — until after they are appointed.
So it’s no surprise that the mayor has raised no objection to his board’s speaker suppression. Board members chosen in secret now have no problem conducting their business with a minimum of public engagement.
Elections matter. Philadelphians must elect people who will stand up for the right of their constituents to be heard on the issues that affect them and their children every day.
Lisa Haver is a former Philadelphia teacher. She is cofounder and coordinator of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools.