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West teachers must decide Friday; SAC chair calls probe a ‘travesty’

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Following the surprise announcement that West Philadelphia High School would not become a Renaissance School next year after all, School District officials told West’s 62 teachers Thursday that they had 24 hours to decide whether to stay or go.

At the same time, the District moved ahead with its formal investigation into allegations of a conflict of interest on the 15-member School Advisory Council that voted to recommend matching West with a team from Johns Hopkins/Diplomas Now as part of the Renaissance process.

Together, the developments set in motion yet another act of the increasingly surreal saga to "turn around" the beleaguered neighborhood high school.

Teachers, whipsawed all spring by delays in the process and then the sudden reversal, are angry.

“It’s almost a comedy at this point,” lamented Neil Geyette, the coordinator of West’s Urban Leadership Academy. “Everything changes every three days. It’s just a mess.”

SAC members, tainted by innuendo that they say has no basis, are outraged.

"It’s a travesty," said Shirley Randleman, the SAC chair who is also the president of the 52nd Street Business Association.

On Wednesday evening, the District announced that it was deferring West’s participation in the Renaissance program for a year. It cited the need to fully investigate the last-minute conflict-of-interest charge – which came after the SAC had voted overwhelmingly to pair West with Johns Hopkins and Superintendent Arlene Ackerman had signed off on the recommendation, and just minutes before the School Reform Commission was poised to vote on the match.

The decision left the school in turmoil, which District officials attempted to address during Thursday’s hastily called meeting to inform teachers of their options.

Many West teachers have already accepted positions at other schools through the site selection process. They were told Thursday they could either take those positions without losing their building seniority, or return to West without penalty.

Teachers who have not yet lined up other positions will still be automatically force-transferred. These teachers can either return to West or participate in the District’s seniority-based centralized placement system.

But all the teachers must let Human Resources head Estelle Matthews know of their decisions by the end of the day on Friday.

The District originally asked West teachers to state their decisions at the meeting on Thursday, immediately after learning the choices. When teachers resisted, saying that they needed time to consider their options and to learn more about what the District intends for West next year, the District officials gave them an extra day.

“[The District] clearly realizes that its going to be a bad situation if no [teachers] come back,” said Laura Boyce, a 9th grade history teacher who was present at the meeting. “But they also weren’t willing to give us much information about what is going to happen at West next year.”

Benjamin Rayer, who heads the Renaissance process, confirmed in an interview yesterday that the District doesn’t know yet how the school will be different next year or what its academic program will look like. It will remain an Empowerment School with District-directed remediation and a menu of programs and supports. “We haven’t spent time in the school to see what else is needed,” he said.

Two things were made clear at the meeting with teachers, participants said.

District officials confirmed that Principal Saliyah Cruz and her administrative staff will return next year, but would be supported by a team from the District.

District officials also made it clear that there is no chance West will be removed from the Renaissance list permanently, even if it shows academic improvement when test scores come in for this school year. As a result, teachers who stay will undergo a reprise of this year’s turnaround provider matching process and face another forced transfer next year.

Ninth grade math teacher Ed Williams wants to stay at West, but outlined the dilemma his colleagues face. “Who wants to go through this again? You’re just delaying the inevitable,” he said.

Meanwhile, the District’s inspector general, John Downs, is looking into what laws or procedures might have been violated when four parents on West’s School Advisory Council (SAC) received small stipends from the Philadelphia Education Fund (PEF) to drum up parent involvement in West through a Parent Outreach Team. PEF, which has a long affiliation with Hopkins in Philadelphia, would work as a subcontractor in a Hopkins turnaround.

Shirley Randleman and Joy Herbert, the co-chairs of the West SAC, were among those to receive calls from the Downs on Thursday.

"This council has complied with everything the District has asked, even though we were all concerned about whether we would have real authority, validity, and input. It’s just total disrespect,” said Randleman.

An analysis of the alleged conflict of interest by the Education Law Center (ELC) at the request of the West SAC found no legal basis for the complaint. The memo, written by attorney David Lapp, was sent Tuesday to Ackerman and members of the School Reform Commission.

District officials did not respond to requests for reaction to ELC’s analysis.

Among other things, Lapp noted that two of the four PEF-connected parents did not even vote for Hopkins, and that three of the four had finished their work and were no longer being paid.

"On the basis of the facts as we understand them," wrote Lapp, "we conclude that (1) the Pennsylvania statute on conflicts of interest in governmental decision-making does not apply to members of an advisory board; (2) even if the statute did apply, it would not be violated in this case; and (3) quite apart from the statute, a common-sense view of this situation reveals no conflict of interest or other improper relationship."

Still, Benjamin Rayer, who is running the Renaissance process for the District, said that “the concerns were significant enough to require an investigation to see if the allegations require some change to the process.”

On May 26, the SRC was scheduled to vote on a resolution, printed in the agenda, approving the West/Hopkins match. On May 24, the 15-member SAC – eight parents and seven community members – had recorded nine votes for Hopkins, two for Mastery Charter, and two for the Promise Academy, a turnaround under Ackerman’s supervision. The voting was overseen by Rayer himself.

At the last minute, however, SRC chair Robert Archie pulled the resolution, citing only unspecified “certain facts” that had come to light.

City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who represents the district in which West is located and who chairs City Council’s Education Committee, would not confirm reports that her office was behind the complaint.

"I’d like to say I have total control over what happens at West, but I don’t," Blackwell said on Thursday. "If I did, we’d already have a Promise Academy."

The councilwoman is one of several influential West Philadelphia community leaders who have made no secret of their preference for West to become a Promise Academy under Ackerman’s supervision.

“That said, I’m prepared to support the will of the majority," Blackwell added.

After Wednesday’s announcement, Randleman was incredulous.

"Everyone in the process has gone through the vetting. Everything we’ve done has been done with Ben Rayer or other District representatives present. If there is a conflict of interest, why all of a sudden at the end of the process is it a problem, when everyone has been fully aware of [the alleged conflict] from the beginning?" she asked.

Rayer acknowledged that "it’s true that the administration did approve the membership" of the SAC, but has not confirmed the Notebook’s reports that he and Ackerman knew as early as May 10 about the four West SAC parents’ connections with PEF.

Carol Fixman, the executive director of PEF, said her organization had been contacted by Downs as part of the District’s investigation. She said the voicemail left by Downs’ office was the District’s first contact with PEF since the complaint surfaced.

A Johns Hopkins representative expressed disappointment with the latest delay, but said that Hopkins will push forward at West and in the Renaissance process.

"We are still an approved provider, so our intention is to continue to pursue a [match] with West," said Linda Musakawski, a member of the Hopkins leadership team for Talent Development High Schools.

And the West SAC met Thursday evening to figure out their next step.

Randleman said she was surprised – and yet not surprised – by the turn of events. “I’ve lived in Philadelphia all my life,” she explained. “This is how things trickle out when there is no substance to a claim."

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