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Gov. Wolf ousts Green, names Neff chair of SRC

The displaced leader says he will fight the move in court.
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    Photo: Harvey Finkle

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Updated | 8:30 a.m.

Gov. Wolf has asked Marjorie Neff to take over as the chair of the School Reform Commission, ousting Bill Green from that role. 

“The School District of Philadelphia is in dire financial straits, and our children are being put at a disadvantage as a result of misguided cuts and poor decisions,” the governor said in a statement. “The district was forced to make major cutbacks in transportation, security, and janitorial services just to open on time last year. We must make new investments in education and provide a fresh path forward for Philadelphia’s schools."

 

Green, who gave up his City Council seat when he was appointed by former Gov. Tom Corbett, said he was "concerned by the Governor’s belief that he can influence this body.  The School Reform Commission is a governing body that has taken hard decisions and is built to stand apart from political influence." He said he believed that Wolf had "no legal basis" for naming another commissioner as chair.

Jeffrey Sheridan, Wolf's spokesman, said via email that Wolf is "well within his authority to name a new chair of the SRC." 

Neff, who was appointed by Mayor Nutter, was the only one of the five commissioners to vote at a Feb. 18 meeting against approving any new charter schools. With 39 applications, the SRC approved five. The SRC was under pressure from Wolf, on the one hand, who said the District couldn't afford more charter schools, and from Republican legislative leaders, on the other, who wanted all "qualified" applicants approved.  

Neff, a 38-year veteran of the District, retired last year as principal of Julia R. Masterman Demonstration School, the city's premier special admission school. 

"Marjorie has dedicated her entire career to education, and she shares my vision for investing in public education so our children have the resources they need to succeed in a modern economy," Wolf said in the statement. "I am confident that Marjorie will be able to engage in a collaborative way the different interests involved in leading the school district and it will be refreshing to have an educator who understands the needs of our schools as chair. I look forward to working with her to restore cuts and reverse the public education deficit in Philadelphia.”

Neff, reached by telephone in Florida, said that the governor asked her to assume the chair this past week.

"I thought about it, I talked to my family about it, and I decided I would do it," she said. "The governor said it was an opportunity to work with him on his vision for public education. I thought about my skill set, experiences I’ve had -- I thought I could do it."

She said she didn't know exactly why Wolf made the decision. "He asked me to make a contribution. I feel for the first time in a long time we have a governor interested in reinvesting in public education, and I'm excited to work with him on that."

She said that she had "no quarrel with Bill Green," and that "he’s been a good chair during very difficult times this past year. I'm glad he’s going to stay on the SRC."

Last week, the SRC decided to take to the Supreme Court its effort to void the contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and redirect the savings on benefit costs into schools. Although Neff didn't say directly whether she thought this was a good idea, she said it is important to have "clarity" on the extent of the SRC's powers. The commission was given special powers when the state took over the District due to its fiscal distress.

"I think we need clarification on what we can and what we can't do," she said. "The Commonwealth Court decision was not clear."

Neff said that while the situation is now "awkward" for the five-member panel, she has no doubts about its ability to continue to work together. "I feel this is a group of people that is going to rise above it. Certainly, Bill has risen above it. We are five different people with five views on almost everything, but we work together very well."

Feather Houstoun, another Corbett appointee, said, "I think Bill has been a terrific chair, and Marge will be also. We have worked together with Bill Hite and his team and will continue to do so." 

Video and text statements from Green are posted below. 

Post by School District of Philadelphia.

STATEMENT FROM SRC CHAIRMAN GREEN

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf asked School Reform Commissioner Marjorie Neff last week to assume the Chair of the Commission. Current Chair Bill Green issued this statement:

“I recently learned from my fellow Commissioner, Marjorie Neff, that Governor Wolf has asked her to serve as the Chair and she has accepted. I have tremendous respect for Commissioner Neff and her years of service to the District, and I appreciate her dedication and insight as a fellow Commissioner.

“Commissioner Neff told me that although she believed I was doing an excellent job as Chair, the Governor’s people were not willing to work with me as Chair.

“I will continue to try to work with and help the Governor in my role as Commissioner. That’s what the SRC, under my leadership, has been doing.”

The legal issue

“Like the Governor, I am devoted to public service. I made sacrifices to take the non-paying position of SRC Chair because it is crystal clear that solving the District’s problems is essential not just to the children of Philadelphia but to the future of the city.

“I accepted the position of Chair with the understanding from the District’s own General Counsel that the Chair could not be removed from office. The SRC statute - 696(b)(2) -makes clear that no Commissioner may be removed from office except for misfeasance and malfeasance.

“I hold the office of Chair and the office of Commissioner; there is no vacancy in the Chair and no legal basis for another Commissioner to be named Chair. This is important: by limiting removal to cause, the SRC statute makes clear that commissioners, once appointed, need to be free from political repercussions for their actions in office.

“I have to assume, however, that the Governor also has attorneys and that he would not purposefully take an action that is contrary to the law as I believe this action is. I believe this issue needs to be resolved, so I will be filing an action in Commonwealth Court seeking a ruling on the law. I will not attempt to block the Governor’s action in the interim but I will show up for work and do my job.

“While I do not question the capability of Commissioner Neff, I am concerned by the Governor’s belief that he can influence this body. The School Reform Commission is a governing body that has taken hard decisions and is built to stand apart from political influence.

“I note the Senate is currently resolving constitutional and legal questions regarding the Governor’s appointing authority.”

Funding SDP

“I did not set up this structure of governance and am not seeking to remain Chair for powers sake. I am seeking to remain in the office so that the SRC can continue to advocate for the resources our children deserve and to support Dr. Hite and his leadership team. I ardently hope Governor Wolf, Mayor Nutter, and the legislatures will give us all the resources our schools need: as I have said repeatedly, when those resources are delivered, I will personally propose the elimination of the SRC and fight for a first rate School Board appointed by our Mayor.

“Governor Wolf made the schools and funding the central issue in his campaign. I’m not sure how this action helps the effort to achieve full and fair funding, but I must assume he would not do anything to jeopardize that outcome.

“I am very concerned, though, about the message this sends to the PFT, with whom our negotiations have gone backwards in recent weeks. I believe the PFT needs to allow its members to contribute to their health care like most other teachers and most Americans. Since the start of negotiations, the PFT has stonewalled on the most serious issues under discussion, including benefits reforms and essential work rule changes.

“I will continue to put the interests of students first and push the PFT to contribute its fair share to solving the problems we have. I hope Governor Wolf will work with me in this effort.”

The SRC's accomplishments

“I am very proud of what the SRC has accomplished.

“In the last year, with spare resources, we have made significant progress on many fronts including:

  • Securing over $240 million in recurring revenue through the cigarette tax, sales tax, concessions and savings not impacting schools;
  • opening 3 new model high schools;
  • piloting two District turnaround schools;
  • implementing the School Performance Report which will measure all District and Charter schools by the same standard, allowing us to make expansion, creation, turnaround, and closure decisions based on data and evidence;
  • debuting the School Redesign Initiative;
  • adopting the Authorizing Quality Initiative; and
  • improving climate and culture in our schools, including having no schools on the state’s persistently dangerous list

“The SRC has stood firmly behind Superintendent Hite’s leadership and we will all continue to have his back to make sure he gets what he needs from Harrisburg, the City of Philadelphia, the PFT, and anyone else that can help our schools and our students.

“I am confident that Commissioner Neff and I will continue to be able to work together in this effort, which remains of the highest importance for our city and the more than 200,000 students in our public schools.”

 

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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.

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