This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
UPDATED 8:30 p.m. with statements from Board of Education member Maria McColgan and board president Joyce Wilkerson
UPDATED 11 p.m. with statement from the mayor’s office
Benjamin Franklin High School and Science Leadership Academy parents, students and teachers met Saturday to coordinate their response to the District after their shared building at 550 N. Broad St. was closed for the foreseeable future due to an ongoing construction project that has disturbed asbestos insulation and shaken loose dangerous airborne fibers.
School officials have scheduled separate meetings for the high schools at District headquarters on Monday: 9 a.m. for Ben Franklin and 5:30 p.m. for SLA. Some parents and staff members were concerned about the school communities being separated for these meetings and asked why Ben Franklin’s meeting would be held during working hours when many parents may not be able to attend.
At Saturday’s meeting, the school communities discussed sending representatives from each school to each other’s District meetings. In addition, many were upset to learn that the District has closed the meetings to the public, including the news media. Parents from both schools planned to send emails to the District asking that the meetings be open to the media.
A group of parents and teachers from both schools co-wrote a letter that they sent to Superintendent William Hite on Sunday.
“Our school communities are being severely stressed from living a day-to-day existence,” they wrote. “Your repeated dismissal of our concerns, expedition of a construction process deemed risky from the outset, and resulting displacement of two school communities demonstrates an utter disregard for the needs of our students.
“We have, mistakenly, relied on the School District to prioritize the completion of what was a high-risk construction/move timeline. We trusted the progress reports we received. Having seen the ineptitude of this progress and the impact on our children, YOUR students, we are no longer willing to do so.”
The letter lists several demands from the SLA and Ben Franklin (BFHS) communities:
- While temporary sites are being identified, SLA and BFHS students will have access to the
District’s 440 North Broad building in order that education for all students can resume
immediately. This option was identified by you in 2017 as a potential site for both schools.
- You must provide options for relocation that:
○ Are free from environmental hazards
○ Are easily accessible by our school communities
○ Provide the resources both schools need to function as in their original school building
○ Do not disrupt existing teaching communities
- An independent committee — with representation by teachers, parents, and students —
must be appointed to survey potential sites and make recommendations to the District.
- The District must provide a legally binding timeline for the relocation to the temporary
location and for the reopening of BFHS/SLA.
UPDATE Board of Education president Joyce Wilkerson issued a statement Sunday night through spokeswoman Imahni Moise.
“The Board of Education stands behind the exceptional educators at Benjamin Franklin High School and Science Leadership Academy whose communities are going through a difficult time as they wait for the renovations of their new school facility,” Wilkerson said in an email. “While these challenges are significant, we are focused on ensuring that they are temporary and will end with these two schools operating in a modern and safe facility worthy of their students and their teachers.” END UPDATE
Facebook post prompts outrage
As the two school communities grappled with their uncertain future this weekend, they were stunned to see a Facebook post by the husband of Board of Education member Maria McColgan. In the post, Joseph McColgan, president of Saints John Neumann and Maria Goretti Catholic High School, offers to enroll 400 of the displaced students at his school, where he says they will “be taught how to respect, to be disciplined and what integrity looks like.” He boasts that his school is “safer, cleaner, equipped with better instructional leaders and … less expensive.”
UPDATE Maria McColgan, in a statement issued last night, said she had no prior knowledge of her husband’s post.
“The statement was written without my knowledge or input and does not reflect my opinions,” said the emailed statement, also relayed through Moise, the board spokesperson. “I remain focused on supporting a safe transition for these two school communities as renovations continue on their new facility.”
SLA parents posted on Facebook asking public school community members to email their concerns about the post to the Catholic school, Board of Education, and Mayor Kenney, who appointed Maria McColgan. Public school parent Zoe Rooney started an online petition to remove McColgan, a pediatrician, from the school board, citing a conflict of interest. The petition had nearly 400 signers as of 4 p.m. Sunday.
“Because of this conflict of interest, she can no longer be counted upon to reliably serve the interests of the students, families, and teachers of Philadelphia, and we do not have confidence in her leadership, committee work, or Board votes as a result,” Rooney wrote.
UPDATE: Mayor Kenney, in a statement issued through his Office of Education, is standing by McColgan, calling her “an excellent board member,” saying he was aware of her husband’s position when he appointed her to the Board of Education and doesn’t consider it to be a conflict of interest.
However, he was strongly critical of Joseph McColgan’s Facebook post.
The statement said: “We’re still reviewing the situation, but based on what we know presently we do not believe the message in Mr. McColgan’s post reflects the opinion of School Board member Dr. Maria McColgan, nor the Board of Education as-a-whole. We do however share the public’s reaction to the post – it was disgraceful to use a School District facility matter as a marketing tool as he did.
“Regarding the petition to remove Dr. McColgan from the School Board, that is a decision that Mayor Kenney would not make lightly. He evaluates all School Board members by their performance and individual merit. Dr. McColgan has been an excellent Board member for more than a year, and the Mayor believes she should be judged on her record, not on a poorly judged social media post by her spouse.
“Additionally, the Mayor was aware of Dr. McColgan’s husband’s occupation when he appointed her to the Board and he does not believe it poses a conflict of interest when it comes to her role in School District governance.” END UPDATE
In response to criticisms of his Facebook post, Joseph McColgan doubled down, writing in response to comments: “I find it comical that a post meant to push forward Catholic education has been misconstrued as a hatred toward educators. Let me ask one question to all the haters out there – putting aside the Supreme Court ruling, is education a right, or is education a priveledge [sic]?”
City Council member Helen Gym tweeted a response to the Facebook post: “Implicitly rooting for schools to fail and a crass grasp at tuition dollars in the face of a crisis is totally beneath the role of any educator invested in this city.”