During the past four decades, I have watched our school district "function" under three governance models.
In 1980, I was deputy mayor under William J. Green and saw his frustration upon inheriting a school board appointed by his predecessor, Frank Rizzo.
The members' terms were designed to outlast that of their appointing mayor, theoretically to minimize direct political influence in schools. But Mayor Green wanted his own board so he could replace a superintendent who had, for starters, used District employees to build a deck on his summer home.
The fight was not pretty. But Green was beyond exasperated that he could not control one of the most important governmental institutions in a city he was elected to govern.
Ultimately, cooler heads prevailed, a settlement was reached, the Rizzo members resigned, and the superintendent was bought out.
Twenty years later, Mayor John Street appointed me the District's interim CEO. By this time the city charter had been changed so an incoming mayor could appoint his or her own board and be held directly accountable for the schools.
Less than a year later, in 2001, there was another brutal political fight over the District, this time between the state and city. The school board was disbanded in favor of a five-member School Reform Commission dominated by gubernatorial appointees.
The agreement resulted once again in a governing body whose members outlasted their appointing authorities, diluting authority, responsibility, and accountability for any elected official.
The agreement was a political victory for Street – he had averted complete state control and wholesale school privatization while getting state funds to save the District from bankruptcy.
Still, a good political compromise does not necessarily result in good governance. Under three different chairpersons, the SRC has presided over fiscal calamity, the ill-conceived hiring of a superintendent, and a scandal that prompted its most recent chairman to resign.
The SRC was supposed to restore confidence and support in the District. But under its watch, our district has taken body blows to its reputation, credibility, and educational viability.
Not that the other governance structures were a bed of roses. But the one with the most promise – a clear-cut arrangement ensuring that the buck stopped at the mayor's desk – was disbanded before it had any chance to prove itself.
Philadelphia is brilliant at blurring lines of responsibility. Can you name who is accountable for SEPTA, the Housing Authority, the Parking Authority? Politicians are adept at creating political sandboxes while shirking accountability. The SRC is Exhibit A for this dysfunction, which spawns a disenfranchised, discouraged citizenry.
Surely, changing governance will not cure the ills of urban education. But the last thing we need is an unaccountable SRC, which, among other things, has provided ample fodder for those who want to abandon public education entirely.
What really matters is the quality, expertise, character, and courage of the people who serve. They need expertise in overseeing a vast governmental organization, the willingness and smarts to ask tough questions, the courage to speak truth to power, and a deep commitment to the mission of public education.
Beyond that, we must clarify what we want the governing body to do.
I think there are four primary functions:
- Fiscal stewardship: Strong, independent oversight of finances, including robust questioning of official budget presentations that will prevent surprise at sudden $600 million budget gaps.
- Leadership: Hire the best possible team, set performance goals and metrics, and monitor progress. The SRC manages the superintendent, not the other way around.
- Integrity: Set appropriate ethical standards and policies in areas like procurement, promotions, and hiring. Publicly report compliance with these standards. Transparency is key.
- Fairness: Create a culture of fairness and equity that values individuals regardless of position, race, gender, or sexual orientation. Members need to set standards for soliciting, welcoming, and considering the disparate views that permeate District headquarters and schools.
Whatever the governing body is called, whoever names its members, it must consist of people with the right stuff who can build a fiscally sound system, choose honest leaders, and create a culture of integrity and fairness.
Then, perhaps, our educational professionals can focus on the issue at hand: educating our school children for a better future for themselves and for our city.