This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
UPDATED Thursday 4 p.m.
The board will vote on an agenda item to enter into an $11 million contract with CDI Computer Dealers, Inc. for up to 50,000 Chromebooks and has been formulating a plan in place for distributing them.
Twenty members of the public have signed up to submit testimony to the virtual meeting. Donna Cooper of Public Citizens for Children and Youth is urging the board to officially update the school calendar and commit to a date no later than April 6 for the technology to be given to students and teachers to be trained in delivering online instruction.
“We are here tonight to ask you to mandate an accelerated timeline so that teachers can teach, and our kids can learn,” according to Cooper’s submitted testimony.
The Philadelphia Board of Education plans to meet as scheduled at 5 p.m. Thursday for its March action meeting, but members will do so via phone and live-stream the session. It is calling for members of the public to submit testimony in writing 24 hours before the scheduled meeting.
However, board watchdogs Lisa Haver and Karel Kilimnik of Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools say that this is insufficient.
Haver and Kilimnik sent a letter to the board saying that, under this plan, the session would not be a public meeting but “a live TV show.”
Although they said they understood the need to forgo an in-person meeting, “the alternative is to hold a virtual meeting that the public can both observe and participate in. Current technology allows for both of these.”
Board President Joyce Wilkerson responded that Thursday’s meeting – crucial to “move student learning forward” – will go on as planned, but the board will look to upgrading its capacity for virtual participation in the future.
“We have received a number of helpful suggestions from our Philadelphia community about how to do this in a way that continues to allow for the vital participation of the Philadelphia community in our meetings,” Wilkerson said. “We know we are not there yet, but we believe this meeting is a critical first step in accomplishing the work of the District in this new remote reality. We look forward to learning from these meetings and continuing to grow our technological capacity at future meetings.”
Haver and Kilimnik’s letter notes that Uri Monson, the District’s chief financial officer, will make a presentation Thursday on the lump sum budget for 2020-21, which is a general outline of revenue and spending. Such a presentation could include priorities, new investments, or news of reduced or increased revenue compared to prior expectations.
Haver said that she or other members of the public might want to react to that.
“Testimony sent in ahead of time could not be amended to include comments or questions about that or any other business taking place during the meeting,” the letter said.
Haver and Kilimnik suggested that members of the public could tweet or email during the meeting and then be contacted by phone so they could be heard.
Staff members could call them at the appropriate time – before or after voting – and each person could give their full testimony, in their own words. Everyone watching would be able to hear the testimony. In addition, some of the questions and comments sent via email and Twitter could be answered during the meeting.
Haver and Kilimnik also asked for all “non-essential” items to be withdrawn, and one – $2 million in contracts with “various vendors” for “professional learning support” – already has been taken off the agenda.
Among the items on the agenda that are scheduled for a vote are playground improvements, implementation and maintenance of software platforms, and $3.7 million in payment to various companies for temporary staffing, including Kelly Services, which provides substitute teachers. There is also nearly $2 million in change orders for the troubled renovation at Ben Franklin High School that is preparing the building to accommodate co-location with Science Leadership Academy.
“In this difficult time, it is important that the public be able to participate in the democratic process,” the letter says.
They also noted that District’s revamped homepage, which is devoted to resources and information related to the COVID-19 response, doesn’t have an obvious notice of the Board of Education meeting.
Written testimony is due at 5 p.m. Wednesday – today – and can be submitted to email@example.com or by phone at 215-400-5959. In addition to the live-stream, the meeting will be carried on Comcast channel 52 and FIOS Channel 20.