Three of the newest members of the overhauled School Reform Commission (SRC) appeared together on WHYY’s Radio Times Monday morning to talk about their new roles and the challenges facing a district running low on both cash and public trust.
“Among the things we have to do is re-earn public confidence,” said attorney Pedro Ramos, who was nominated to the SRC by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett in June, and is expected to become chairman after his appointment is confirmed by the Pa. Senate.
“I think the incoming board is very mindful of the need to … be a lot more active in engaging the public in listening,” he said.
The joint live media appearance, rare if not unprecedented in the SRC’s 10-year history, was a clear sign of that new commitment to public accountability.
It was also a sharp departure from the tight-lipped ways of the previous commission, which saw four of its five members, including former chairman Robert Archie, resign in recent months.
Joining Ramos in the studio with host Marty Moss-Coane were recent mayoral appointees Wendell Pritchett and Lorene Cary.
All three talked extensively about the changing landscape of public education in Philadelphia. Philadelphia has more charter schools than the rest of the state combined, and the District has moved aggressively to turn around some low-performing schools by awarding management to outside operators. Voucher legislation that could further shake things up is also pending in Harrisburg.
“We have to be open-minded about any approach that benefits children,” said Pritchett, who is the chancellor of Rutgers-Camden University and a former aide to Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter.
“There are more options today than there were 15 or 20 years ago,” Pritchett added. “We need to figure out ways to scale up the ones that are working.”
He declined to endorse the voucher legislation, however, saying that the “devil is in the details,” most of which still need to be worked out.
The incoming SRC members also talked at length about the as-yet unstarted search for a new schools chief. The messy, protracted departure of former superintendent Arlene Ackerman helped prompt widespread calls for a change in how the SRC does business.
Ramos was clear that the SRC would not be looking for a “messiah” to come in and singlehandedly turn things around.
“We’d like to find a leader for the School District that has a track record of building excellent teams,” said Ramos. “To get a person like that, or to retain a person like that, I think we have to get our house in order.”
That will mean being more transparent about the District’s financial and safety challenges, he said.
The previous commission oversaw a $629 million budget shortfall, which the District must still find additional savings in order to completely close. School climate has also been a hot-button issue, especially in the wake of the Philadelphia Inquirer’ investigative series on the District’s handling of violent incidents.
Pritchett took his seat on the commission earlier this month, and Cary will join him at this week's SRC action meeting, scheduled for Wednesday at 3 p.m.
Both Ramos and Feather Houstoun, Gov. Corbett’s newest nominee, are still waiting for Senate confirmation.