This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
City Council signed off Friday on Mayor Kenney’s renominations of seven members to the Board of Education and approved his addition of Ameen Akbar to the panel, which determines spending and policies for the School District and its more than $3 billion budget.
Several Council members applauded Kenney’s choice of Akbar, who has spent his career working with underserved youth, particularly African American males. He has been a mentor and a basketball coach and has worked in juvenile justice. For 14 years, he has been a staff member at YouthBuild, a charter school that prepares students for careers by teaching them construction skills.
“I am appreciative of this opportunity,” said Akbar during the virtual meeting, adding that he looked forward to bringing his unique perspective to the position.
Kenney appointed Akbar to replace Board Vice President Wayne Walker, who declined to seek renomination for personal reasons.
Besides Akbar, Council approved the reappointment of seven current board members – Julia Danzy, Mallory Fix-Lopez, Leticia Egea-Hinton, Lee Huang, Angela McIver, Maria McColgan, and Board President Joyce Wilkerson.
Kenney had also renominated the other original board member, Christopher McGinley. But in February, after the nominating process had concluded, McGinley announced he would leave as of April 30, citing family responsibilities. The mayor has not yet named his replacement.
The members were sworn in shortly after the vote. The City Charter requires that new members be seated by May 1.
The unanimous approvals came after a hearing at which several Council members asked pointed questions of board incumbents, most of them related to fairness and equity.
Subjects included new school construction projects, lead and asbestos abatement, the future of the Comprehensive School Planning Review process, strategies to improve community engagement, and the board’s philosophies around increasing access to special admissions schools and charter expansion.
The Council members were also very concerned about what the District was doing to assure that all students had internet access.
“We thought Chromebooks were a big challenge, but that’s turned out to be only part of the challenge,” said Wilkerson in response to a question from new Council member Jamie Gauthier. “The District is looking to buy [WiFi] hotspots to distribute to some families.”
She noted that “they come at a substantial cost, and we have to tackle that.”
At Thursday’s board meeting, Superintendent William Hite said that the hotspots were as expensive as the Chromebooks. The District budgeted $11 million to buy up to 50,000 of the laptops and has purchased 40,000. Hite did not provide details on whether the District had actually yet purchased any hotspots.
Fix-Lopez said that she was on a statewide call with other district officials only to discover that some of them – better-funded districts, she said – had given up on getting good quality broadband for all their students and gone back to primarily paper instruction. Rural areas of Pennsylvania are known to have spotty broadband service.
“They realized the inequities of internet access,” Fix-Lopez said. “Statewide, it’s harder to have access than [to get students] the actual device. Superintendent Hite said this is a national conversation, not just for Philadelphia or Pennsylvania.” The District and the city can work together on this, she said, “but it really needs to be addressed at a much higher level.”
Kendra Brooks, another new City Council member, who rose to prominence as an education activist, asked whether the board planned to end the Renaissance schools initiative, in which low-performing schools are converted to charters as a turnaround strategy.
At Thursday’s board meeting, McGinley offered a resolution to end the program, pronouncing it mostly a failure. At the same meeting, the board started the closure process for two such elementary schools, Daroff and Bluford, former District schools now operated by music entrepreneur Kenny Gamble’s Universal Companies.
The board promised to take the issue up later after an internal evaluation of the Renaissance initiative is completed. Hite has not added any schools to the program for several years.
Brooks was also concerned about the Comprehensive School Planning Review process, known as CSPR, through which the District is studying demographic trends to determine future needs relating to opening, closing, or combining schools.
Brooks said that she feared the community engagement part of the process had been and would continue to be inadequate.
“We understand the challenge with that program and ask that it be paused for the time being,” Wilkerson said. “As you point out, the process has challenges.”
Councilwoman Helen Gym also wanted to know whether the Renaissance initiative, which now includes more than 20 schools, would be declared a failure and abandoned.
“This was a major initiative, and we must know what worked and what didn’t exactly work, and why,” she said. “We have to learn these lessons going forward.”
Gym pointed out that the charter conversation is one that is largely about revenue because under the funding formula in Pennsylvania’s 23-year-old charter law, a disproportionate amount of new money spent by the District goes to charter schools. She called the law “painfully wrong” and said the District was part of a statewide lobbying effort to change the law.
Councilwoman Katherine Gilmore-Richardson said she was concerned that charter schools founded by African Americans seem to be “disappearing from our city.” Wilkerson said she has learned one problem is that African Americans often do not get the same kinds of outside resources that are often lavished on other charters.
“The underlying challenges that minority charter schools face beg for a more comprehensive solution, and Philadelphia needs to align itself with other organizations nationally that are trying to tackle this issue,” she said.
Kenney has not given a timetable for replacing McGinley on the board, but he has asked the Education Nominating Panel to reconvene and send him more names from which to choose.
This is the first time that City Council has had the authority to vet and approve a mayor’s appointments to the Board of Education, which was reconstituted in 2018 after 17 years of state control over the system under the School Reform Commission.
“Now more than ever, we need a Board of Education with experience, expertise, and a profound commitment to the well-being and education of our city’s children,” the mayor said in a statement. “I am confident that the board members I’ve appointed will help our city ensure that Philadelphia students are educated and supported during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.”