School Reform Commissioner Bill Green has been making the rounds lately, along with fellow Commissioner Sylvia Simms, at events sponsored by the Parent Congress and the Education Opportunities for Families, presenting himself as an advocate for poor and working-class Philadelphians, expressing outrage and disdain at what he portrays as a lack of dedication and compassion from teachers and other school professionals.
His goal seems to be the sowing of divisions between parents and teachers, and between different demographics of parents. He recounts the old story, an urban legend at this point, of the new starry-eyed teacher, whose love of teaching and children has not yet been beaten out of her by the big bad union, who stays until 4 p.m. each day until the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers rep knocks on her door one day at 3:15, demanding that she leave because “you’re making the rest of us look bad.” That, he tells the parents, is “the culture of our school district.”
For a person in a position of power to mislead one group by demonizing another is nothing new. Green’s railing against union members — blaming them for the District’s shortcomings instead of those actually responsible for years of devastating spending and policy decisions — has become a regular feature of School Reform Commission meetings. Rather than spend money to lower class sizes or bring back school librarians, the SRC has funneled millions to vendors for questionable programs like blended learning, to testing and test-prep companies, to unnecessary training programs for teachers and administrators, to outside legal firms, and for ongoing charter expansion.
But let’s look at the culture of the SRC, especially in the last three years. Has it been a culture of openness and transparency, or one of secrecy and contempt for the public?
The record shows that Green, as both chair and commissioner, has used his position of power to thwart the will of the community, even violating the law to silence them. In October 2014, then-Chairman Green convened a meeting with no notice on the District’s website and with no public comment permitted in which the SRC voted unanimously to cancel the contract that it had negotiated with the PFT. Commonwealth Court’s unanimous ruling that the SRC acted illegally, that it has no “special powers” to unilaterally terminate a contract, was upheld last week in a unanimous decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Green’s new role as champion of parents can only be met with skepticism by those who have been the victims of his actions. In February 2015, Green used his position as chair to make a unilateral decision, again with no public notification, to have police search the bags and confiscate the signs of parents and community members who came to be heard on the issue of an alarming impending charter expansion. Green never apologized or made a commitment to respect the rights of the public, even after the District was sued in federal court and agreed to a financial settlement with the members of the public whose First Amendment rights he trampled.
More recently, Green was exposed in the press for having lied about his role in turning over Wister Elementary to Mastery Charters after stating publicly that he had no previous knowledge that Commissioner Simms was going to introduce a resolution from the floor. Documents obtained through a Right To Know request showed that he had spoken to a representative of Philadelphia School Partnership about having PSP board members (most of whom do not live in the city) lobby for such a resolution — five days before the SRC meeting. Neither he nor Simms ever met with the Wister parents who were fighting to keep the school public.
In a recent article on the ASPIRA charter renewals, Green declared himself a “shill for students and their parents.” But he has made sure that no parents or students would be present to witness the deal that he and Simms, who have both been consistently pro-charter and anti-union, are making behind closed doors with ASPIRA management.
Of course, it’s not just Green’s behavior that motivated Philadelphia voters to approve a non-binding referendum in May 2015 for the abolition of the SRC.
Commissioner Farah Jimenez must recuse herself from voting on an increasing number of crucial issues as the possible conflicts grow because of her husband’s connections to charters and her own role as director of an education advocacy organization. Simms has refused to answer questions from the public and the media about the nature of her connection to her sister’s activities as a paid consultant for a company that lobbies on education reform issues.
Members of the SRC who continually shut out the public, who fashion private deals with charter companies and lobbyists, who deny the public’s right to speak on resolutions that affect the future and mission of public schools and who trample on the First Amendment rights of the public can try to rebrand themselves as public advocates, but the record shows they have been anything but.
Lisa Haver is a retired Philadelphia teacher and co-founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools.