Patting themselves and others on the back for progress made over the last six years in the city schools, Mayor Nutter and Gov. Rendell nevertheless announced that it was time for a change in the leadership of the School Reform Commission.
At a Saturday press conference held at School of the Future, the mayor and governor unveiled their new appointees – chair Robert Archie, a distinguished attorney and Philadelphia public school graduate; Joseph Dworetzky, a former city solicitor; and Johnny Irizarry, a community activist and director of the Center for Hispanic Excellence at the University of Pennsylvania. Gov. Rendell re-appointed Heidi Ramirez, whom he first named in 2007 to fill an unexpired term.
Archie and Irizarry, appointed by Nutter, will be able to take their seats at the April board meeting, in time to make important decisions regarding Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s strategic plan, called Imagine 2014, and the School District’s 2009-10 budget – which will have more than $325 million in additional funds due largely to the federal stimulus money and the governor’s plan for distributing it.
Dworetzky and Ramirez, Rendell’s appointees, require confirmation by the state Senate, a process that often takes months. But Ramirez can continue to serve in the interim. Only Dworetzky’s seating will be delayed.
Chairwoman Sandra Dungee Glenn and commissioner Martin Bednarek, whose terms expired, were not reappointed. Rendell announced that he was appointing Dungee Glenn, whom he praised lavishly, to the State Board of Education. The fifth - and now the senior - member of the SRC, Denise McGregor Armbrister, has served for two years on the body, which was created in 2001 after the state took over the city schools.
Reconfiguring the commission's membership, which was done entirely behind closed doors, took months of negotiation between the mayor and governor. They both said that it was because they were busy with other things, but the process is one of the least transparent in the city and the subject of intense political jockeying. In other Pennsylvania school districts, the boards of education are elected.
While community activists and others who attended the announcement seemed happy with the quality of the new appointees, others said the process itself still leaves a lot to be desired.
“Even if they are good people, they deserve a better process than they got,” said Helen Gym, a founder of Parents United for Public Education. “The governor and the mayor had a unique opportunity to show that the SRC had a chance to shed its political vestiges and instead they reverted back to the same backdoor political jockeying that reinforces the disconnect between the public and the leadership of the School District.”
With many controversial decisions in the offing, including what to prioritize among the elements of the 30-page laundry list of initiatives in Imagine 2014, the public really has little sense of exactly what the role of the SRC should be and how deeply it should delve into details while setting policy. While there have been community meetings around town on the plan, there is still little sense of how the input will affect the final product.
Lori Shorr, Mayor Nutter’s chief education officer, said that there are plans to orient the new members with a “serious on-boarding process, to go over all sorts of things, what’s the role of the SRC, all of this.
“If they understand their roles, they can focus their energies,” Shorr said. She acknowledged that the SRC and the District’s operations need to align their processes for community engagement and function less like two parallel organizations.
Nutter said that he regarded the SRC as a “policy-making body within broad parameters,” while the superintendent does “day to day management” and “implementation.” Nutter said that he had been briefed on Imagine 2014 and said it has “some exciting, dynamic elements,” but that flexibility would be key to real change.
Both Nutter and Rendell said that he notwithstanding the SRC’s accomplishments, it was time for a change in leadership.
“It’s no reflection on Sandra or Marty (Bednarek),” said Nutter. “I looked around and decided it was time for a change and putting in my own appointments.”
Rendell said that he felt the new members were better positioned to work more closely with the business community, which he said is crucial to improving the system.
“We wanted a fresh look,” he said.
Archie is a partner at Duane Morris, LLP and has worked primarily in municipal finance, real estate and corporate law for nonprofit corporations. A resident of Mount Airy, he has represented both the city and School District in the past.
He said he will resign from the board of the Universal Institute Charter School and possibly from the board of trustees at Lincoln University, his alma mater. “I have an obligation to give back,” he said in explaining why he agreed to take on what some consider a thankless job.
Dworetzky said he expected the position to be “overwhelming.” As city solicitor when Rendell was mayor, he represented Philadelphia in the long-running school desegregation case, which in the mid-1990s had devolved into a case about providing more resources to racially isolated schools. Commonwealth Court Judge Doris Smith had ordered all kinds of reforms and programs, and the state and city tussled over who should foot the bill. Dworetzky argued that under the state constitution to provide all children with a “thorough and efficient” education, it was Harrisburg’s responsibility. Smith agreed, but higher courts removed her jurisdiction in the case.
Irizarry, who grew up in East Harlem and said he entered kindergarten not speaking a word of English, said that “education is my passion.” He holds a Master’s Degree in Urban Education from Temple and worked as a curriculum developer for the School District.
A former nonprofit executive director and official in two charter schools that primarily serve the Latino community, Irizarry said he wanted to study more closely Ackerman’s plans for turning over some low-performing schools to charter management organizations or other entities for “turnaround.”
“I want to see what’s really being proposed,” he said.