APPS plans to challenge school board, alleging violation of the Sunshine Act

Board president Joyce Wilkerson says there are no plans to take new votes.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools (APPS) plans to pursue its challenge, in court if necessary, of how the Board of Education responded to a disruption during its March 28 meeting. The members recessed to a private room and continued the meeting there, and APPS members contend that this violated the state’s open meetings law, known as the Sunshine Act.

The board left the auditorium after students and adults who were furious at its 7-2 vote to adopt a policy requiring metal detectors in all schools shouted and chanted, making it very difficult to continue conducting business.

“If we have to, we will sue them,” said APPS co-founder Lisa Haver. “This is a bad precedent. We understand they were put in a bad position … but they’ll have to fix it.”

(Darryl Murphy / The Notebook)

Lisa Haver, center, at a meeting of the School Reform Commission in 2016.

The board members and school officials went to a committee room in another part of the building to continue the meeting, which they live-streamed. They took votes on more than a dozen resolutions, including one adopting the lump sum budget for fiscal year 2020. State law requires that to be done at least 60 days before final adoption by May 31.

In a letter to APPS, Board of Education President Joyce Wilkerson said the board members “share your disappointment that we were unable to complete the March 28th Action Meeting as planned.” She said the board may, in the future, rethink how it deals with disruption, but added that “we do not believe it is necessary to retake the vote.”

“All speakers on items being considered on March 28th had already addressed the Board,” the letter said. “Speakers on general issues will be able to speak at the next meeting. The entire meeting was live-streamed and broadcast on the District’s TV channel, as well as recorded and posted on our website. The Board’s votes, in this manner taken publicly, are consistent with the Sunshine Act. Thank you for your partnership as we learn and grow.”

Haver said that live-streaming is “irrelevant” and that members of the public have the right to be in the room so they can question and demand to speak, for instance, on a last-minute action item that is proposed.

“They’re laying themselves open to possible problems,” Haver said. “If they fix it right away, it’s done. Anyone could challenge any one of those votes for any reason.”

For instance, a losing vendor could challenge the award to a winning contractor, she said.

Haver said that she and others went to the room where the meeting reconvened and were barred from entering by school police, which she said reinforces her position that the meeting was not public.

“Nobody said they were reconvening the meeting,” Haver said. “It is not a public meeting because they live-streamed it. Even if this had some weight, they never told anybody they were live-streaming it.”

She said the board should have a new meeting and vote again, perhaps by convening a quorum on a day when it is holding multiple committee meetings. Otherwise, she said, members’ stated commitment to be more transparent and accountable than the board’s predecessor, the School Reform Commission, will be damaged. Frequent and public committee meetings are part of their transparency initiatives.

“This is a new board,” said Haver. “If they’re saying, ‘we want to be transparent and accountable,’ for them to go and take votes in a room, in a private room and then not try to fix it undermines their credibility.”

APPS successfully challenged some of the SRC’s actions and compelled it to change its procedures regarding transparency and public accountability. The group protested a hastily called and not well-publicized meeting in October 2014 in which the SRC voted to impose a contract on the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers during a years-long standoff. One change as a result of the challenge was that the District started posting resolutions that would be up for votes on its website two weeks before meetings.

“We were able to get a lot of reforms on how the District operates, making sure they observe not just the letter of the Sunshine Act, but the spirit,” Haver said. “They shouldn’t want to turn the clock back.”