This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Thanks to the School Reform Commission, Lisa Haver and other members of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools now have a daily habit: reading the newspaper’s classified section.
Haver and five other members of the advocacy group were among the few people present on the morning of Monday, Oct. 6, 2014, at a quietly announced SRC meeting. The announcement of the meeting was made only in an ad placed in the classified section of the previous day’s Philadelphia Inquirer.
The purpose of the proceeding, as many suspected, was to cancel the School District’s contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
Haver said she didn’t know about the meeting until another APPS member, Karel Kilimnik, called and asked her about it.
“Since then,” said Haver, “we have one member of APPS who, every single day, goes and looks at the classifieds to see if the SRC or the District is putting in these tiny notices that they don’t want people to know about.”
After a settlement with the SRC this fall, that kind of stealthy notice may be a thing of the past.
As a governing body for the city of Philadelphia, the SRC must adhere to the Sunshine Act of Pennsylvania, a law requiring “all meetings or hearings of every agency at which formal action is taken” to be open to the public with an opportunity for them to comment. This, according to lawmakers, is to create and maintain transparency in governing agencies for “increased public confidence.”
“If you don’t have an informed and active citizenry, government suffers for it,” said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.
“Ideally, government and the public they serve work together for the best interest of everyone. And the public can’t help government do that if they don’t know what’s going on.”
APPS takes action
On that morning in 2014, at that barely advertised SRC meeting, the commissioners voted unanimously to cancel the teachers’ contract without any public notice or testimony, and APPS called foul. Then they called a lawyer.
“We just thought we can’t let that kind of thing stand,” said Haver, retired teacher and founding member of APPS. “It wasn’t just that one thing. They have a pattern of not letting people speak when they really should be able to speak.”
Haver was the only person who signed up to speak at the meeting, but her testimony wasn’t heard until the controversial decision was made. In her post-vote testimony, she called the SRC’s actions “sneaky” and questioned the secrecy of the meeting.
A month later, she and APPS filed a civil complaint against the SRC accusing the commission of violating the Sunshine Act. And after two years of back and forth in the Court of Common Pleas, the two sides finally reached an agreement mandating that the SRC be more transparent and open to discourse from the public.
The conditions of the agreement took effect in October, though some were implemented before the settlement. Now, community members will be aware of most resolutions, complete with descriptions, two weeks ahead of the scheduled meeting.
Walk-on resolutions, those presented to the public less than 48 hours before a meeting, must be noted as such — by listing them separately or with an asterisk — and made available before the meeting. Also, the resolution must be announced, and all present members of the public must be given a chance to register and comment on it.
Resolutions proposed to amend, edit, revise, or substitute an existing resolution may be voted on, but only after hearing public testimony on the original resolution. If it is a completely new resolution, then it can be voted on at the next action meeting. Or if SRC members choose to vote on it in that moment, members of the public must be allowed to give testimony on the resolution.
The exceptions to these conditions are resolutions concerning quasi-judicial proceedings, when the District must investigate facts, hold hearings, and draw conclusions from them to later make a judgment. Examples of quasi-judicial resolutions include those that deal with student expulsions, new charter school applications and renewals, and dismissal or discipline of District employees.
“It is a really good thing for everyone, including the SRC […],” said Rich Migliore, an APPS member who assisted lawyers with the terms of the settlement. “It will go a long way toward building trust.”
Such trust is long overdue. As recently as January, the SRC passed another surprise resolution that shocked parents and community members of Wister Elementary in Germantown when they voted to hand over the school to the Mastery charter school network.
Many parents fought to keep the school from the takeover after the District pegged it as failing, then recommended it for the Renaissance program. When findings of academic progress surfaced, Superintendent William Hite withdrew the school from consideration and announced that the school would stay under District control. The parents who fought the takeover rejoiced, while those in favor lamented.
Then, in an unexpected twist during January’s SRC meeting, parents who welcomed Mastery saw a victory when Commissioner Sylvia Simms proposed a resolution to match Wister with Mastery, overriding Hite’s decision. The resolution passed, 3-1 (Farah Jimenez recused herself due to a conflict of interest).
No testimony on the resolution was allowed.
“There shouldn’t ever be a governmental body where somebody just says, ‘I’m proposing a resolution right now and we’re going to vote on it right now,’” said Haver.
“That wasn’t just some little thing, like we need a roof on the school or some minor technical thing. This was the fate of a neighborhood public school, and it should not have happened.”
After the vote, Simms said she had “pent-up emotions” about the way “the District has allowed so many schools in low-income neighborhoods to fail” students and families. Parents and families were “literally crying for alternatives” and were not pleased with the education of their children.
Amid the uproar after the decision, audience member Pamela Williams shouted at Simms that she should recuse herself due to a conflict of interest. Questions about Simms’ motives arose because her sister, Quibila Divine, is employed by Citizen Consulting Group, a Chicago-based public relations firm that specializes in charter school outreach. Mastery is on the firm’s list of former clients, and the firm also has ties to Philadelphia School Partnership, which favored Wister’s takeover.
The vote drew heavy scrutiny and suspicion of an ethics violation from community members and advocates, but Michael Davis, chief counsel for the District at the time, found that Simms had no conflict of interest under the state’s Ethics Act.
Audience members never had the chance to engage the SRC on the matter, and there is no way to tell whether it would have made a difference in the Wister vote. Williams’ outburst led to the investigation of the possible conflict after the fact.
Most times, Haver said, it feels like “you’re yelling into the wind,” but sometimes public testimony can make a difference.
At the November SRC meeting, Marianne Kennedy, a teacher at Frances E. Willard Elementary School, was one of two teachers listed on a resolution that would result in their termination. Kennedy, who taught for 19 years in the District, is under investigation by the Department of Human Services over allegations of child abuse.
For months, Kennedy pleaded her innocence, and on the night of Nov. 15, the SRC was going to decide her future as a teacher in Philadelphia.
With supporters in the audience, she and four members of APPS testified before the SRC in her defense. When it was time to vote, Commissioner Bill Green proposed to amend the resolution and remove Kennedy’s name from it. Green said that the information that he and the other commissioners had was conflicting and that they should wait for more facts from the DHS investigation. The commission voted unanimously to amend the resolution.
The District later confirmed that the testimony of Kennedy’s supporters was considered before Green’s proposal.
The relationship between community members and the SRC remains tense amid calls for the commission to be abolished and District governance returned to local control. Some are hopeful, however, because of the appointment of two new members to the commission. For the time being, community members can look forward to more transparency, thanks to the Sunshine Act settlement.
“The judge made it clear this is a court-ordered settlement,” Haver said. “And both parties have to honor what they agreed to.
“I do expect them to honor it. I think with this new leadership coming in, we’re optimistic. We have faith that there will be more transparency and more openness.”