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Is the new school board diverse enough?

sheila armstrong
Greg Windle

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

Mayor Kenney finally has his new locally controlled school board, which will start governing the School District on July 1. But the lack of economic diversity on the board and the closed-door selection process have left longtime education advocates lamenting that the new board is too similar to the School Reform Commission.

Sheila Armstrong, a member of the interfaith social justice organization POWER who has been involved in public education activism for six years, said the new board struck her as an “elite group.” She was a member of the People’s Slate, a group of candidates put forward by the Our City Our Schools advocacy coalition. The coalition, which includes POWER, worked long and hard to bring an end to the School Reform Commission and return the District to local control.

“As an education advocate, I don’t even see any names of people I recognize,” Armstrong said, adding that she didn’t want to judge the board too harshly before she gave its members a chance to prove themselves. She plans to try to work with the new board, but has her doubts. “It makes me wonder, where were they advocating for education? I haven’t seen them advocating for our kids or being a voice for parents like me.”

Armstrong grew up in poverty, living in University City before it was gentrified, and she is now a parent of two Philadelphia public school students. Her name was submitted for the new board, but she never heard from the nominating panel.

Armstrong was glad to see racial and cultural diversity on the board, but disappointed that none of the final picks seemed to be working-class or low-income parents.

“Without the class diversity, we’re still going to have miscommunication in our communities,” she said. “I was a high school dropout and an at-risk student. … I don’t feel as though any of them have that type of understanding.”

Kendra Brooks, an activist with Parents United, withdrew her name from the People’s Slate after she was picked for the mayor’s 13-member nominating panel that vetted the hundreds of board candidates for him. She said the nominating process was “flawed,” adding that the panel did the best it could, given the process outlined in the city charter and the short time period that it mandated.

“With the time frame presented, four months of my life belonged to the city,” Brooks said. “Just imagine going over 500 resumes in 30 days and really giving deep consideration to every single one that you read.”

Brooks agreed that the board does not have enough economic diversity, but said the explanation lies in the system itself. After all, the school board members hold positions without pay that require dozens of hours of work each week.

“The level of sacrifice deters working-class parents. If you look at the list of 500 names, there weren’t a lot of working-class names on the list,” Brooks said.

And she wasn’t surprised that the parents who ended up on the board had children in relatively affluent schools. “If you look at the names [submitted to the nominating panel], and their zip codes — they mostly live in the affluent zip codes of the city. North Philadelphia wasn’t well-represented. My zip code wasn’t represented.

“We’re talking about the distribution of power, and this is one of the most important volunteer positions in our city. Who rises to the occasion? Affluent parents. The average working-class parent doesn’t have the time for this unpaid position.”

In the first month of the process, the members of the nominating panel reviewed each resume and gave it a series of numerical rankings in several categories, along with written comments, according to Brooks. The rankings were averaged, and the 120 applicants with the highest scores were interviewed. Many were interviewed several times.

While reviewing resumes and paperwork from the applicants, Brooks realized that a lot of the activists who she knew would make great candidates didn’t look good “on paper” next to doctors and lawyers with their professional resumes and cover letters.

“If I had to submit my resume at the time, I may not have ranked high enough to get an interview. It was kind of heart-wrenching for me, and I’m critiquing myself, too,” Brooks said. “We in the education justice movement need to do more work preparing our folks to compete on paper with lawyers, doctors, financial folks — corporate folks who do this for a living.”

A Penn pipeline?

Seven of the nine board members are alumni of the undergraduate program and several graduate schools at the University of Pennsylvania. Penn’s provost, Wendell Pritchett, was chosen by the mayor to chair the nominating panel. However, only 45 percent of the candidates that the panel submitted to the mayor were Penn alumni.

Jessica Way, a city teacher and core organizer of the Working Educators Caucus that supports Our City Our Schools, was not shocked to see the high representation of Penn alumni on the school board.

“Considering you’re looking at a group that looks wealthier than the bulk of folks in Philadelphia isn’t really a surprise,” Way said.

During a protest at Penn last month, Way and other activists with the coalition pressed Pritchett and the university council to contribute financially to Philadelphia public schools in return for the university’s tax-exempt status. Penn and Columbia in New York are the only two Ivy League schools that do not make payments in lieu of taxes – so-called PILOTs – to their cities.

Way thinks that board members need a “personal investment” in Philly schools, but not necessarily a college degree, let alone an Ivy League degree.

“[The Working Educators Caucus] was looking for parents who didn’t have quite as privileged backgrounds … a board that was more socioeconomically diverse,” she said. “While we see parents [on the board], they are parents at more exclusive public schools in the city. I wish we could have seen more parents and community members from neighborhood schools that are not as well-supported as Penn Alexander.”

Penn Alexander is subsidized by the University of Pennsylvania and is considered one of the top elementary schools in the city.

Two of the board members are parents, both with children at Penn Alexander and one also with a child at Central High School. There are other parents, a few educators, and several District graduates. Wayne Walker — a corporate lawyer turned corporate consultant — draws particular attention from critics for not having any education experience or personal connection to local schools. Walker, a Georgia native, moved to Philadelphia in 1989.

“Because Philly’s a larger school district, it’s assumed that someone with business experience needs to run the schools,” Way said. “But a lot of mistakes in governance of the District were made by people with business experience who didn’t understand what goes on in classrooms.”

Way is hopeful about the mayor’s selection of Mallory Fix Lopez, who used to work at Thomas Edison High School, but disappointed that Catherine Blunt and Tonya Bah, nominees from the People’s Slate, were not chosen.

Bah is a parent of two autistic children in the District and an activist with the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools. She said her initial interview with three nominating panel members went well.

Bah said she suspects it was her final interview that did her in, when she was asked certain questions repeatedly, phrased in different ways. She said the interviewers, Pritchett, among them, were friendly and polite. But she felt her answers to these questions may have disqualified her.

“They kept asking me what I thought should be the relationship between Dr. Hite and the board, and what my role towards him would be,” Bah said. She responded by saying she felt the SRC limited Hite’s options by declining to consider additional borrowing, for instance, instead of closing schools. In the past, she said, Hite “did not have a large enough menu of options to choose from, and some of the disastrous decisions he made came from that.” Besides school closings, she cited an over-reliance on consultants and outside contractors.

Then, she said, they kept asking her what she would do if she had a disagreement with the mayor.

“I said he’s entitled to his positions, but needs to explain his decisions and I’m happy to explain mine,” Bah said. “Of course we’re not going to agree on everything. I wasn’t about to acquiesce and say: Oh, you know, he’s the mayor and he’s for education, so whatever he decides is best!

“I’m surprised I made it as far as I did.”

In February, Kenney clashed with the City Council president over whether new school board members could only be removed “for cause,” which the mayor opposed as too strict a standard. He wanted more flexibility in deciding when to terminate board members, which some people interpreted as a power grab that would allow him to dismiss anyone who disagreed with him on any issue. His spokespeople said that, to the contrary, it was necessary to cement his accountability for the future of the District.

Ultimately, City Council passed a resolution that offered something of a compromise on the dismissal standard.

These first nine board members were appointed without any formal input from Council and, according to some sources, very little informal input. Council has passed a city charter change resolution requiring its confirmation of future appointees. The charter amendment will also broaden the pool of people eligible to serve on the board, adding students under the age of 18 and non-U.S. citizens, including people who are undocumented.

Bah said that she wishes the new school board members well and that she will reserve judgment until she can observe them on the job. However, she added that as the mother of two autistic children, she was disappointed not to see parents of students with special needs on the board.

Bah’s comments about the District’s overuse of contractors and vendors stands out, given that six of the nine board members work for, or run, consulting firms.

Lee Huang is a senior vice president of Econsult Solutions, a firm that holds a contract with the city that is renewed annually. This could represent a conflict of interest for Huang on some board votes. Former SRC Commissioner Farah Jimenez routinely recused herself from countless votes on charter schools when her husband’s law firm represented charters.

Angela McIver, who describes herself as a co-founder of Mastery Charter Schools, runs Math Foundations LLC, which holds contracts with charter schools in other states, but none within the District.

Mallory Fix-Lopez founded Language ConnectED LLC, a consulting firm that provides professional development to institutions dealing with international employees or clients. The company currently holds a contract with the University of Pennsylvania, which in turn holds contracts with the School District.

Besides Wayne Walker, the only other new school board member who did not attend Penn is Maria McColgan, a pediatrician whose husband has been a Republican candidate for City Council and Congress and whose brother, Val DiGiorgio, chairs the Republican party of Pennsylvania.

“These are not community people. These are not people whose kids are in struggling schools,” said Lisa Haver, co-founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, the SRC watchdog group that has attended every meeting since the governing body’s formation. “We never saw a single one of them testifying at an SRC meeting or at a community meeting. We didn’t see them at hearings in 2013 to try and save the schools being shut down.”

Haver is concerned that the interests of the communities that called for an end to the SRC will be ignored under a future board that, to her, looks too much like the SRC.

“I actually thought that we would get at least one known advocate, like [former District educator] Catherine Blunt or Tonya Bah,” Haver said of the two People’s Slate candidates whose names were submitted to the mayor by the nominating panel. “We thought there would be at least one person who’s been part of the struggle to defend public education. I was surprised that we didn’t get at least one. This is very much a middle-class, corporate-connected, foundation-connected group of people.”

The mayor did pick a number of board members with ties to Philadelphia’s charter school community.

Mastery Charter Schools, where McIver was a co-founder, rapidly became the District’s largest charter provider and it now serves more than 10,000 students across 18 schools in Philadelphia. McColgan was on the board of Philadelphia Academy Charter School, where her two daughters attended, before resigning to take the school board position.

“When you have this kind of political process, the people with power who want to be heard — they get heard,” Haver said. “It would be naïve to think that powerful people with their own interests didn’t lobby the mayor. … If the business community or Chamber of Commerce say they want people with business interests, they’re going to get it. If the charter people like the PSP [Philadelphia School Partnership] or Excellent Schools PA want to be heard, they will. What we didn’t have was the ability for the public to speak in hearings about what we want the future of the District to look like and what we want the board to look like.”

Brooks, who defended the work of the nominating panel, attributed the affluence of the board to the process itself. She said that more public participation was unrealistic given the rushed time frame, but pointed out that the entire process is outlined in the City Charter. She noted that the procedure could also be amended by a vote of City Council to allow it to be more transparent.

Brooks supports an elected school board. But she stressed that, if not done right, elections could produce the same results.

“It brings us back to this conversation about money and power,” Brooks said. “With an election process, who would have the money? Some of the same folks who have been excluded from this conversation would be excluded again, because who has the money to run a campaign? Lawyers and doctors — affluent folks.”

Brooks said the focus going forward needs to be on reforming the process.

“There are barriers in place that prevent working folks from participating,” she said. “I think that processes need to be put in place, even if we get the elected school board we need, to give people equal opportunity to be a part of the process regardless of where they fall financially.”

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