In a shocking turn of events, both the Inquirer and the Daily News are reporting that School Reform Commission Chair Sandra Dungee Glenn may be off the SRC. Media reports say that she may be replaced by attorney Robert Archie.
A few weeks back, I wrote about the baffling secrecy and lack of transparency around choosing the members of the School Reform Commission, the city/state oversight body for the Philadelphia public schools.
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.
Unfortunately, if true, the departure of Sandra Dungee Glenn won't do much to alleviate those concerns. Here are a couple of reasons why:
- Number one is the lack of any transparent process or set of guidelines in the selection/ouster of SRC commissioners: Dungee Glenn has served on the SRC for seven years and was on the Board of Education prior to the state takeover. She has plenty of admirers (and probably some detractors as well), but after all that time of service, where’s the public input on whether we think she’s done a good job? Is she being replaced because she did a bad job or because the Governor or Mayor said, “I want my person in there”? Her potential ouster shows how flawed a process is when a person has served for a decade but there’s no public vetting of whether she should stay or go.
- There's the loss of institutional memory at a critical time in the School District’s future: This is a critical moment for the schools, with a number of major imminent decisions including school closings, the renewal of EMO contracts and disciplinary school contracts, a controversial plan to deal with failing schools, and the launching of School CEO Arlene Ackerman’s Strategic Plan "Imagine 2014." Note that School Chief Arlene Ackerman, her new chief of staff and many of her top executive staff hail from outside Philadelphia. Dungee Glenn’s departure and the rumored departure of Martin Bednarek also means that the senior person on the SRC could be Denise Armbrister, who was appointed in 2007 and has yet to make a mark there.
- And institutional memory is important because of all that stimulus cash: This year the School District has an unprecedented amount of money – on the order of $325+ million – thanks to federal stimulus dollars. Don’t we want that money spent based on the wisdom and experience of what’s worked before and what might be needed now? How are parents, staff, students and community members supposed to feel confident with a new crew coming in trying to make those decisions when we’re not even sure why and under what guidelines new SRC commissioners have been chosen to oversee that decision-making?
- Finally, Dungee Glenn’s departure potentially poses challenges for incoming leadership, particularly CEO Arlene Ackerman: The lack of a transparent process means that Mr. Archie has his work cut out for him on the public trust front - and that's something political leaders could have avoided. It's hard to imagine that parents and school members who face school closings, charter upheavals and the like in the coming months might not view the new SRC with considerably wariness. Although the rumored retention of Dr. Heidi Ramirez is encouraging, a fresh SRC doesn't guarantee fresh optimism about the SRC shedding the vestiges of its politically charged past. In particular, Dungee Glenn was a major booster for Dr. Ackerman, and more important, she was a graceful foil to the Schools Chief’s occasional rougher edges. Dungee Glenn had the political skills to navigate SRC meetings without seeming distant or condescending, she smoothed things over when disagreements came up and worked to keep the Commission together. Although I was disappointed that the Chair didn’t work to engage the SRC more with the public beyond the SRC meetings, I always felt that Dungee Glenn was strongly aware of and responsive to the notion of the public responsibility of her position.
As Dr. Ackerman takes on some of her more controversial initiatives, she will need a partner with the political grace and influence that Dungee Glenn has imparted, and the public also needs someone with the sense of public service and responsibility Dungee Glenn has infused into her role as well as the influence she has with Dr. Ackerman.