Last month, the terms of four out of the five School Reform Commissioners expired. As the Governor and Mayor mull over their appointments, don’t expect to see anything like this from prospective nominees to the SRC:
Dear fellow School District parents, students, staff and stakeholders:
I am applying for an opportunity to formally serve you as a member of the School Reform Commission. As a former public school teacher, former editor of the Public School Notebook, a board member of a community organization which has founded a charter school, one of the founders of a citywide parents group – Parents United for Public Education – and a mother of public school and charter school students, I believe I have a wide range of experience and values that has taught me the importance of public engagement and made real the mantra that change has to start from the bottom up. As a Commissioner I pledge to improve public access and engagement; bring greater public scrutiny to private contracts; focus on reducing class sizes and creating small school communities; develop a baseline level of education service for each and every school; and engage community members and education stakeholders in a more public budgeting process to better show how our funds are being used in the service of our academic goals. For your consideration I have attached my application, resume and am available for the next public review session. I remain in your service – Helen Gym.
Most cities and townships, after all, elect their school board members and treat them like public officials who campaign to explain their values, qualifications and goals.
Not so for Philadelphia. We have ours appointed for us.
In fact, a School Reform Commission appointment is probably one of the least transparent processes in the School District of Philadelphia. Decided upon in backdoor rooms, at the sole discretion of either the Governor or the Mayor, lacking any written set of responsibilities and expectations, and largely absent public standards for avoiding ethical and financial conflicts of interest, the Commission appointments have long baffled most parents and education observers.
The SRC itself replaced the former Board of Education in 2002 in a roiling shake-up of the public schools. At the time, suspicion was high that appointments were based less on the candidate’s contributions to public education and more on their agreement to execute marching orders around a hostile state takeover that focused on privatization of public education as its primary aim.
While the pre-takeover Board of Education appointments were far from an ideal model of civic engagement and accountability – all commissioners were appointed by the Mayor – the current School Reform Commission has a split vote between the Governor (who names three commissioners) and the Mayor (who names two commissioners) that makes it particularly vulnerable to political jockeying.
Since its creation, the SRC's secrecy and lack of public engagement have not helped improve the public trust. In particular, the SRC has suffered from a number of missteps which have raised public concern about the agency's oversight and accountability standards, including:
the SRC's claim in 2006 that it was unaware of a $73 million budget deficit despite the fact that parents and community members had been organizing six months before about pending budget problems;
concerns about the SRC’s regular "executive sessions," which one Commissioner even admitted at one point may have violated PA's sunshine laws;
a 2007 scandal involving former SRC Chair James Nevels, who was caught eating out regularly at the Four Seasons on $15,000 worth of District money. Though publicly exposed, Nevels didn’t even get a slap on the wrist for his actions; and
the SRC's budget and administrative staff, including its own independent public relations and communications firm as well as administrative staff that has brought the volunteer commission to a $2+ million a year budget.
So far the Mayor and Governor are mum on their appointments:
"We don't have an announcement to make at this time and we're not putting out a timeline," Lori Shorr, Nutter's chief education officer, said last night.
"The governor is focusing on the budget and the revenue shortfall and the human toll it is taking," said Chuck Ardo, Rendell's spokesman. "He will not comment on the SRC until he has something to say."
But there’s a lot that needs to be said about the Commission. Like how now is a great time to reform the Commission appointments in order to make the SRC a better, more publicly accountable agency. Commissioners, after all, are responsible for the oversight of more than $2.3 billion in public money for schools, yet largely remain out of the public eye.
Here are some places to start:
- Show us a job description: In all seriousness, beyond showing up twice a month on Wednesday afternoons, what are Commissioners expected to do and be held accountable for? While most Commissioners do more than show up to SRC hearings, the public needs clarity about the roles and responsibilities of Commissioners. It would also go a long way toward identifying what’s relevant in the SRC’s sizeable staff and budget as well as their duties beyond the regularly scheduled public hearings.
Tell us what makes someone qualified to serve: Absent an articulated list of roles and responsibilities, what then makes someone uniquely qualified for the SRC? There is no shortage of people with impressive resumes in this city, but that doesn't mean that they're on the SRC in service to the District or at the behest of political interests. And no matter a Commissioners’ political stripes, for the most part, the general public doesn’t know why they’re there, how they got there and what they are there for. Take a step towards changing that.
Take nominations and create a community review panel: Last year, the SRC took a huge step forward in creating a community panel to interview and assess potential finalists for the District’s CEO position - a job that eventually went to Arlene Ackerman. The state and city would do a lot in following a similar lead with SRC Commissioners.
Broaden the review process and while you're at it, visit Philly: The current process goes something like this: Once the Mayor and Governor name their appointees, the nominees trek to Harrisburg where they’re subjected to closed door interviews by a select group of state legislators. But that is hardly a definition of public review. First, any review process needs to involve local stakeholders as well. Governance of the School District is a cooperative venture between the state and city. Second, legislators ought to conduct any questioning of a public official in public. And while at it, why don’t the state legislators who are responsible for the Philadelphia public schools come down here for those public hearings. Take a look around and talk to some kids and families. You might find things aren’t quite what you thought they were 90 miles away in Harrisburg;
Ensure that potential nominees to the Commission can divulge potential conflicts of interest and adhere to standards regarding ethical behavior: SRC Commissioners sign off on more than $2 billion of public funds, which go towards contracts, spending, administrative use, and much more - far beyond what most people expect for school funds. Because of this, SRC Commissioners need to be open and forthright about political and financial relationships which might raise concerns about possible conflicts of interest. For example, former SRC Chair Nevels ran a billion dollar private equity firm, whose clients included labor unions and public entities. As a businessman, he has every right to keep his client list confidential but as an SRC Commissioner, he should have been a problematic appointment since any conflict of interest with client relationships ought to have been known when public funds were at his disposal.
There are lots more ideas and possibilities for improving the appointments of SRC Commissioners. What are yours? And what kind of Commissioner would improve your confidence in the public schools?