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SRC can't afford to leave democracy behind

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Thursday’s move by the School Reform Commission to hire a Chief Recovery Officer who will be advised by an "outside team of experts" signals a potentially troubling path around both mission and process for the School District as it struggles to keep afloat amid fiscal chaos.

District 1201 union President George Ricchezza, whose 2,700 members have all received layoff notices, said what’s on many people’s minds: “What I see here is a dismantling of the public school system."

To be sure, no one can deny the District’s devastating financial situation. A $715 million budget gap. $61 million to close by June. A projected $300+ million deficit in FY2013.

On top of all that was a ruling that the city and School District had lost a state court appeal around property taxes that could result in $45 million less in tax revenue for the schools.

The current leadership of the SRC needs to take swift fiscal action. No one denies that. It is also a given that schools, school personnel, and classrooms will need to make more compromises on top of the ones they already have made.

But here’s where the SRC leadership needs to act with caution.

When it announced a leadership shake-up and hired former Philadelphia Gas Works Chief Thomas Knudsen in the same night, the SRC enacted what’s called a “walk-on resolution” – a move that is generally shunned by public boards committed to transparency and dialogue. Knudsen assumes the role of both a superintendent and chief financial officer – an unprecedented position without clear limits on his scope of powers. Knudsen made no formal statement at the SRC meeting though he was present, a decision that did not improve public trust or understanding of his role and mission.

Inquirer reporter Kristen Graham tweeted from the meeting that Knudsen would be advised by “outside experts with experience in turnaround." The RFQ for this team includes broad powers like development of a five-year financial plan, a dramatic restructuring of the District by FY2013, provision of senior level personnel, and monetization of assets - despite the fact that Knudsen will only serve for six months. 

The SRC should note that the rhetoric around “recovery” has loaded meaning in education circles all too familiar with districts like New Orleans and Detroit whose emergency managers have truly dismantled public education. Neighboring Chester-Upland’s long and slow collapse under a state takeover also weighs heavily on the minds of everyone concerned about public education.

The SRC needs to couple its urgency to act with a public approach of deep humility and sorrow for the lack of action that got us to this place. Instead, Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky said, without a hint of irony, that “circumstances require us to live in a very different world.” It was as if Dworetzky, who sat on the last SRC, was completely oblivious to his own role in allowing the District to get itself into this awful mess.

It's equally baffling to observers why former CFO Michael Masch, who did much to obfuscate the District's financial straits in the previous administration, remains on as financial advisor; or former interim CEO Leroy Nunery remains as an advisor as well. If we're threatening the jobs of maintenance and cafeteria workers due to the failures of leadership, it's hard to understand why the very leaders responsible stay while so many others lose their jobs.

In the aftermath of the 2007 fiscal crisis, the School Reform Commission curtailed then-CEO Paul Vallas’ powers and turned financial control over to Chief Financial Officer James Doosey, who served throughout interim CEO Thomas Brady's tenure. Doosey presented the SRC with options and consequences that were publicly debated and discussed.

Knudsen, because he is acting as both chief financial officer and superintendent, appears to have far fewer checks and balances against his powers despite his lack of familiarity with a fragile school district.

On another front, it was disappointing, amid the announcement of a new fiscal crisis, that two entities that have been loudly opinionated around our schools chose to remain silent – the city and the state. Both could and should have made clear what financial efforts they will make to reassure Philadelphia's students, families and staff.

I’m not out to nitpick with a new SRC leadership that deserves a chance to distinguish itself from its predecessor. But bold action needs to go hand in hand with public dialogue and process before the SRC acts; otherwise it risks being perceived as alienated from and alienating to the public.

Before the SRC took its actions last week, there should have been at least a few meetings about the District's financial state, explanation of the constant shifting of numbers and financial distress, and a broad discussion of what the SRC thinks various sectors need to contribute. That includes key funding entities like the city and state, the business community, charters and the nonprofit sector - not just how local schools, unions, and 440 must cannibalize themselves.

There should have been significant discussion of the need for a Chief Recovery Officer, its role and limitations and who the CRO is accountable to and for. There should have been dialogue about Knudsen, his background, intent, and focus over the next six months.

The fiscal crisis is real. So is the danger of dismantling a fragile public school system whether anyone says they intend to or not.

Making room for public debate and discussion as we embark on uncharted territory does not mean delaying or dallying. It's about recognizing that we're in unfamiliar seas and we need advice and feedback as we test different solutions. It's recognizing that de rigeur solutions like hacking personnel, salaries, and benefits translate into dire consequences when we talk about school safety, teacher efficacy, and improving the college graduation rate. And it’s about valuing public trust and dialogue by an entity, the SRC, which many feel has allowed crises to justify trampling on those very values.

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