A review of minutes of School Reform Commission meetings has turned up at least 44 different resolutions at 26 meetings since 2011 in which the commission exercised the power to suspend portions of the Pennsylvania School Code.
In all, the SRC's special power was invoked more than 60 times over this five-year period, the Notebook found, with some of its resolutions incorporating multiple waivers of the state law.
Last week, the state's Supreme Court wiped away that power, declaring "null and void" all SRC actions based on these code suspensions.
It was a bipartisan ruling. The court's majority ruled that the legislature, when creating the SRC, had acted unconstitutionally in granting the body blanket power to waive state laws.
Much of the discussion of the ruling has focused on the issue at the center of the court case. Charter advocates have cheered the court's action for freeing them from District limits on enrollment. District officials warn that the ruling, by preventing the District from imposing caps on charter enrollment, could cripple the District's finances, hurt students in District schools, and allow low-performing charters to expand at will.
But the SRC frequently exercised these extraordinary powers and used them on a variety of issues – beyond the issues of charter school enrollments and authorizations, school closings, and seniority that have been recognized by the District. For example, since 2011 the SRC has acted to waive:
- Requirements for public, competitive bidding on projects
- The provision forbidding charters from giving geographic preferences
- Requirements governing the layoff of professional employees
- Provisions governing the compensation of professional employees, such as step increases
- Rules governing the process for private sales of District property
- The requirement that proceeds from sales of property be directed to capital or debt service accounts
- The eligibility requirements for acting District superintendents.
In suspending the school code, the SRC resolutions frequently cite the District's deep financial crisis as the rationale for taking extraordinary action. But other reasons are also offered. In one case in December 2011, the commission simply said that the School Code "limits the School Reform Commission’s flexibility to deal effectively and quickly with issues facing the School District and the School Reform Commission desires to remove the limitation on its powers."
Wednesday morning at 10 a.m. on WHYY's Radio Times, a group of education insiders will discuss the potentially diminishing role of the School Reform Commission.
Andre Dienner contributed to this report.