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After Ben Franklin IG report, Philadelphia board members challenge Hite on trust

He vowed to work on changing the culture in his administration.

Exterior of the School District of Philadelphia building. Emma Lee/WHYY

The Philadelphia Board of Education met Thursday for its final action meeting before the start of the school year, approving a large staff-training contract, rejecting a proposed tax break, and unanimously endorsing the inclusion of a Black Lives Matter “Week of Action” in the annual school calendar.

The board met just a day after the release of an internal inspector general’s report that leveled scathing criticism on the administration of Superintendent William Hite over its handling of the renovation of Benjamin Franklin High School and the co-location of Science Leadership Academy.

The report detailed flawed planning and project management, missteps that endangered the health of staff and students and forced the two schools to abandon the building for months while the botched job was completed. In their opening remarks Thursday, board members raised serious questions of trust, communication, and accountability. None challenged or criticized Hite directly, but several suggested that their trust in his administration has been shaken.

“Right now we should feel connected to … communities,” said member Mallory Fix Lopez, but instead the board feels disconnected and “pulled in every which direction …. due to continued missteps by management.”

Fix Lopez said the lack of clear communication around the Ben Franklin fiasco is part of a larger pattern in which the board is given incomplete and misleading information about complex initiatives.

“I strongly feel the board was left in the dark ... We cannot accept this. It is not isolated, is not an anomaly,” said Fix Lopez. “We need to be able to trust what we are told. That’s no longer easy for me.”

Board member Maria McColgan wanted assurances that “measures [will be] put in place” to ensure that district leaders are told “when there are multiple concerns flagged … so we don’t have this happen again.”

Vice President Leticia Egea-Hinton told Hite that better communication will be “super critical” to allow the board to believe that “with future projects that … some of these things will be corrected.”

Member Lee Huang said the report had revealed “a need for a drastic change away from a culture that rushes things,” and doesn’t always give the board the information it needs. Angela McIver likewise called for “a dismantling of the culture” that made the Ben Franklin failure possible.

And member Ameen Akbar said he was troubled by gaps between the administration’s words and its actions. “Change happens at the speed of trust,” Akbar said. He encouraged Hite to make good on his administration’s many promises, not just with construction projects but with social justice and anti-racism efforts. “No matter what plans we have, trust is an issue across the board,” he said.

“I couldn’t agree more,” Hite responded, adding that he “regrets” how the project was handled. “It’s going to be our actions that have a lot more to do with [building trust] than our plan,” he said.

Hite outlined steps already taken, including the hiring of a construction management firm to supervise major projects, and promised new “systems” for “constant feedback” from stakeholders and contractors.

He also vowed to improve the overall culture of the central office. “I do think we have to reorganize ourselves … so that people aren’t just hustling around trying to complete tasks as quickly as possible,” he said.

But while the board avoided directly challenging Hite’s performance, public speakers were not so shy. Lisa Haver of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools (APPS) said her group believes it’s time for Hite to resign.

“If the meeting were held in the auditorium, I would be standing up and screaming,” said Haver. “The Ben Franklin and SLA students were collateral damage in the Hite administration’s struggle to save face … if Black lives matter to this board, they will use their power to hold Dr. Hite accountable.”

Long Night

It was another long night for the board and the public, featuring 68 registered speakers, along with about a dozen submitted written testimonies. Many speakers raised concerns about the return to digital learning; others called for removal of police from schools and increased spending on counselors and other student supports.

Robin Cooper, head of the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, or CASA, the principals union, said her members remain frustrated by district leaders who are asking them to simultaneously prepare to reopen school buildings and prepare digital learning plans. Principals and staff need better training and guidance around digital learning, she said.

“Union input is never authentically considered” when district officials make their plans, Cooper said. “While [principals] are in buildings schlepping boxes, their minds are on virtual learning.”

Cooper said the district’s failures in the Ben Franklin/SLA project are emblematic of its overall approach.

“There was no plan B. They put all of their eggs in one basket, and they were destroyed.”

In other news:

- The board rejected a request from the City of Philadelphia to approve a tax break for a South Philadelphia development project. The proposal would allow the creation of a Keystone Opportunity Zone for a portion of the massive, now-shuttered refinery near the Philadelphia Airport. The KOZ proposal would guarantee the district an annual payment equal to 110% of the property taxes, while allowing the property owner, Hilco Redevelopment Partners, to avoid paying other taxes.

The board declined to approve the KOZ proposal in a 4-3 vote (one abstaining), based largely on concerns that promised jobs and job training opportunities will not materialize. (A majority of five votes is necessary to pass board items.) Numerous community members spoke against the project, citing Hilco’s controversial record in other cities. Board president Joyce Wilkerson said the rejected measure will now go “back to the [Kenney] administration” for revisions.

- The board unanimously approved a resolution to support an annual “Black Lives Matter Week of Action.” Member Maria McColgan tried to table the motion, out of concerns that teachers and principals had not had a chance to weigh in, and that the measure would prove a mere “Band-Aid.” But following a short but spirited debate, with no second for her motion, McColgan agreed to support the resolution.

Member Akbar assured McColgan that the vote was the beginning, not the end of the social justice conversation. “We vote on it because it’s been years in the making,” Akbar said. “We are committing to do all of the work that Black Lives Matter includes.”

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