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School Reform Commission’s new committee aims to open policymaking to public view

Morning scheduling of meetings raises concerns, activists say.

policy committee
Darryl Murphy

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

The School District held its first meeting of its policy committee at its headquarters on Thursday, three weeks after being approved by the School Reform Commission.

Christopher McGinley, the SRC’s newest member, urged the formation of the new committee to open up some internal deliberations to public view.

“There are two places to look to find out what a school district values,” said McGinley, who served as superintendent in two suburban districts, Cheltenham and Lower Merion. “One is its budget, and the other is its policies.”

And he said policies exist with three main purposes: to safeguard the health and wellbeing of children, to inform district employees about aspects of their work, and to provide clear descriptions of what to do in issues of legality. If policies aren’t clear, he said, “they aren’t valuable for the district.”

They can range from employee harassment to management of food allergies to copyrights to educator misconduct to the investment of district funds.

He called opening up this process to public view “a step forward,” although the SRC’s most consistent watchdogs complained that the 9 a.m. time limited attendance by people most affected — those who work in or attend schools.

Besides McGinley, the committee is made up of SRC chair Joyce Wilkerson and Superintendent Hite or his designee. Naomi Wyatt, Hite’s chief of staff, sat in for him during Thursday’s meeting, which was open to the public.

A number of policies were listed for review but not discussed; among the seven discussed, three were moved forward for a first reading at the next SRC meeting. Four others will get further discussion before being presented to the SRC, McGinley said.

The three that will move forward involve provisions on nondiscrimination in employment, acceptable use of the internet, and how the District will respond to breaches of “personalized computerized information,” or hacking.

Anyone who has questions on any of them can still raise them at the SRC meeting or the next policy meeting, which will occur before a final vote is taken.

One of the policies that will get further review by the committee before being presented to the SRC regards harassment of students. Councilwoman Helen Gym spoke at the meeting regarding that policy, referencing the District response several years to violence against Asian-American students at South Philadelphia High School — a response that led to a civil rights agreement with the U.S. Justice Department

Compared to the monthly SRC meetings, the policy review was low key and technical. However, members of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools raised concerns over the scheduling.

Lisa Haver, a member of APPS, said it felt more like a staff meeting than a public one.

“When you make a decision to have a meeting on a workday at 9 a.m.,” she said, “you know that people who must carry out the policy, and people who are affected by this policy, cannot be here.”

Last fall the group settled a two-year lawsuit with the District which accused them of violating the PA Sunshine Act after they cancelled the teacher’s contract with a surprise resolution at a barely publicized meeting in October 2014.

The conditions of the settlement led to more detailed descriptions of the resolutions, as well as posting them on the District website two weeks before SRC meetings. Also, members of the public now have the opportunity to speak on resolutions brought up on the floor.

In a further effort at transparency, the SRC approved the creation of the policy committee to review resolutions before the public. Unfortunately, for the teachers and parents who can’t be there, a morning schedule is what works best for the committee, said McGinley.

“It’s brand new to us,” he said. “So it’s a step forward that we’re having this meeting. This was a time that we could arrange it so we could have our staff available. And a time we could have members of the SRC available. We’re volunteers, here, so we have other responsibilities.”

In the meantime, McGinley reiterated that community members are welcome to comment on policies at the SRC meeting, and he will provide a report of the policy committee’s review at future SRC meetings.

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