Philly school supt. Hite has contract extended, hears raucous debate about charter conversions

 Advocates for and against converting three neighborhood schools to charters packed district headquarters Thursday night. (Photo by Brad Larrison for Newsworks)

Advocates for and against converting three neighborhood schools to charters packed district headquarters Thursday night. (Photo by Brad Larrison for Newsworks)

The Philadelphia School Reform Commission voted unanimously Thursday night to extend Superintendent William Hite’s contract through 2022 at a meting marked by sharp testimony about converting traditional schools into charters.

SRC members have praised Hite’s leadership. So, too, have many city and state politicians, including Mayor-Elect Jim Kenney, who supports the extension.

“I’m thrilled to continue that work, and I have no illusions that we will have to do tough things,” said Hite. “There will be many people who will not agree with the tough things that must be done, but nonetheless those things must be done.”

Hite’s tenure began in July 2012. He earns $300,000 annually. The new deal ties Hite’s future pay increases to those of teachers, whose contract expired August 2013.

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During public comment, some teachers, parents and community members chided Hite for a list of grievances and criticized the contract extension.

“His record includes school closures, privatizations, layoffs and outsourcing of union jobs that has resulted in more turmoil and instability, not less,” said Central High School teacher Yaasiyn Muhammad. “Philadelphia’s public school students, family and staff deserve to be part of this decision.”

Muhammad and others criticized the SRC for blessing the extention years before the original contract was set to expire, limiting wiggle-room in years to come.

Some noted that former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman received a costly $900,000 buyout when officials sought to oust her from district leadership in 2011.

Robert McGrogan, the president of the union representing principals and administrators criticized Hite for outsourcing substitute teachers.  The private firm so far has been unable to deliver on a promise to do a better job than the district.

It’s vacancy fill rate peaked this week at 37 percent – stressing out teachers and principals who are already making do without lots of basic support.

“This has led to unsafe conditions in almost every one of our schools,” said McGrogan. “So I ask, on behalf of my members, are we being set up to fail?”

Like November’s SRC meeting, the bulk of the marathon session was dominated by a lively debate about converting three district elementary schools into neighborhood-based charters.

Hite has recommended converting Jay Cooke Elementary in Logan, Samuel Huey Elementary in West Philadelphia and John Wister Elementary in Germantown.

Responding to a request for qualifications, Mastery Charter has applied to assume control of Wister; Great Oaks has applied for Cooke; and both Global Leadership Academy and SABIS have applied for Huey.

William Jackson, whose four children attended Wister, testified in support of the charter conversion. Some of his children have excelled at Mastery schools, he said.

“Wister failed our kids. And I do understand that teachers are heroes. I believe that and I support that. But when our schools are failing, it’s not my civic duty to keep my kids poor,” he said, “Mastery is sending our kids to college.”

Wister parent Charity Schullere argued against the conversion. She praised her son’s experience in the school’s pre-K program and fears that early childhood programming will be cut by the charter.

“Get to know us. Get to know the community. We’re hoping that you put us on the list to become a community school,” said Schullere, referencing Mayor-Elect Kenney’s plan to invest in schools as full-service medical and social centers.

Huey parent Robert Reynolds highlighted the systemic concerns of additional charter expansion. The current state budget does not recognize the added costs of operating a decentralized system.

“The idea of the charter school would be fine if they could find a better formulation of government funding, instead of squeezing the neighborhood schools dry and dumping all of their problem students and kids with special needs back into the already distressed system,” said Reynolds.

The SRC will vote on the conversions in January.

At the beginning of the meeting, commissioners took time to acknowledge the negative effects of the long-overdue state budget agreement. 

Hite announced this week that the district may not be able to secure additional loans to keep schools open or to pay teachers beyond January 29.

The budget framework agreed to by Gov. Tom Wolf and Republican legislative leaders would give Philadelphia a roughly $100 million boost.  That would be a big increase, but falls short of replacing all the annual state aid that’s been cut in recent years.

“I want only one thing this holiday season, and that is for our state lawmakers to do their job and bring the 200,000 students in Philadelphia that depend on them a budget that they deserve,” said SRC chairwoman Marjorie Neff.

Commissioner Bill Green also urged for a swift budget passage, but added concerns with a number of charter-friendly items in the senate-approved school code bill. “I favor responsible charter growth, but this would allow for potentially poor quality seats growing in the system,” said Green.

Wolf and Democratic leaders say those items are necessary compromises to secure a $400 million K-12 funding boost statewide.

Commissioners unanimously approved all of Thursday’s resolutions, including one that would temporarily outsource the staffing of two of its top administrators. The district says it has been having trouble finding good candidates for the jobs.  The contract would pay Foundations Inc., a non-profit with links to State Rep. Dwight Evans (D-Philadelphia), to fill two posts through September.

District officials will select candidates from a pool of finalists and oversee their work.

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