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Ramirez resigns, though gov says he asked her to stay

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Heidi Ramirez resigned from the School Reform Commission late this afternoon, at the close of a four-hour meeting, declaring in a prepared statement that her expectations about the oversight role of the body were not shared by others and that she felt she could do more "to improve teaching and learning for our most needy students" from work outside the SRC.

Gov. Rendell said in an interview shortly after her announcement that he had a replacement in mind that had been suggested by Republican Senate leader Dominic Pileggi. However, he insisted that he did not ask her to resign, and in fact told her that he would support her if she stayed -- and he added that, in any case, he couldn't force her out. 

"I tried to talk her out of resigning on a couple of occasions, because I thought she was a great appointment," the governor said in a phone interview. "I felt she offered something to the board that nobody else did." He said he told her he'd be "pleased" if she decided to stay, but felt that her mind was made up.

The governor wouldn't name the potential replacement (but at one point inadvertently referred to the person as a "he") and professed that he wasn't sure of the potential nominee's party affiliation. He said that the Ramirez resignation "had nothing to do with creating space for a Republican," although it has been speculated that the party is unhappy with the lack of a representative on the SRC and that the issue arose as part of the contentious state budget negotiations.

Rendell did withdraw Ramirez's name after nominating her for a full term in March. At the time, his office said that since she was already on the SRC she could continue to serve indefinitely. They said they wanted to concentrate on moving other nominees not yet serving through the Republican Senate.

Rendell said today  he was planning to name her replacement "soon."

Rendell said he had a lengthy conversation with Ramirez on Monday and that he was genuinely distressed about her concerns that the SRC did not have a strong enough voice compared to Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. 

"She wanted the board to be more questioning and more probing than she felt it was; she thought the board should play a different type of role," he said. "I don’t want a rubber stamp board either. I have confidence in Superintendent Ackerman but I do think the board should probe and give input. I want a board that probes and asks questions."

He said he would ask the new appointee -- as well as Rendell nominee Joseph Dworetzky, who has been awaiting Senate confirmation as the fifth SRC member -- to sit down with Ramirez and listen to what she says about the SRC's relationship to Ackerman.

Ramirez, who joined the SRC in early 2008, said in her resignation statement: "I ...came to the SRC, based on experiences in Philadelphia and in public education more broadly, with a set of expectations for the role of the SRC and its relationship to the district CEO. This view now seems inconsistent with that of many others, making it more difficult for me to honor my commitments to the Governor and the community." After her statement, she declined to be more specific about what she meant.

Ramirez choked up several times during her speech. At the end, the several dozen remaining members of the audience and the SRC members present gave her a standing ovation. Ackerman rose to her feet slowly and after the rest of her colleagues.

Later, the superintendent, who had publicly accused Ramirez of "shackling" her at one board meeting by voting against a resolution, declined to be drawn into a discussion about whether she was glad to see Ramirez go.

"I don’t want to focus on my relationship with Commissioner Ramirez. It gets in the way of the real work. You heard her, the last portion of her comments, talk directly about the urgency we have as a district to reform ourselves for the children’s sake. The fact we may have disagreed in public about specific issues doesn’t mean we didn’t agree on the bottom line. 

"It is not OK that more than half our children drop out of school. It's not OK that a third of our children, close to a half are below proficient. I do not want to focus on personalities; it is counterproductive. In the end, it gets in the way of the critical work we need to do around changing dismal results." 

In the lengthy SRC meeting prior to making her resignation statement today, Ramirez was characteristically vocal, and she was the lone commissioner to vote against a resolution authorizing the production of a reality TV show featuring Tony Danza teaching at Northeast High School this fall.

Acknowledging the active role Ramirez played at SRC meetings, fellow commissioner Johnny Irizarry said that the rest of the SRC would have to pick up the slack.

"Our role is to present questions, to make sure that we're being accountable and that the District is being accountable, too. It's going to be hard to do that without her."

Ramirez will serve until her replacement is seated. Given the General Assembly's record, that could be many months.

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Dale Mezzacappa

@dalemezz
Dale is a contributing editor at the Notebook. She has reported on education since 1986, most of that time with The Philadelphia Inquirer.