As the drumbeat grows louder for abolishing the state-created School Reform Commission, the list of questions about what could replace it grows longer. Even politicians who professed their commitment to seeing the SRC gone have said the process of dismantling it will take a while, and it seems they are in no rush to get started.
When two members of the five-member commission decided in October to resign before their terms were up, civic leaders, parents, teachers and others in the education community seized on the opportunity to call for the SRC to vote itself out of existence.
But both Gov. Tom Wolf and Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney — Democrats who campaigned on the idea that the city should have control over its school district — have appointed new members to the SRC while warning that devising a new governance model will not happen quickly.
So, if Philadelphia is going to be saddled with the SRC for the foreseeable future, there are several changes that could be implemented now to help it work better.
One of the chief complaints that critics have about the SRC is that it does much of its work in secret and without community input. For example, the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools (APPS) filed a lawsuit against the SRC, then-Chairman Bill Green, and the District for violations of the state’s Sunshine Act in November 2014, a month after the SRC held a hastily called, early-morning meeting to cancel the teachers’ contract. No one could speak on the action before the vote was taken. While this meeting was the impetus for the lawsuit, there had been earlier complaints about the commission’s failure to comply with open meetings regulations.
In October 2016, the SRC settled with APPS, agreeing to post resolutions two weeks in advance of a vote; disclose legal matters discussed in executive sessions, including name and docket number of lawsuits; and making opportunities for speakers to comment on last-minute resolutions offered from the floor. It is incumbent upon new Chairwoman Joyce Wilkerson to uphold this agreement and declare a new spirit of openness with the public.
Mechanisms for engagement
In this issue of the Notebook (page 16) we look at alternative models for school governance. Many of the most effective have clear guidelines and pipelines for parents and community members to participate in decision-making. In New York, Boston and Chicago, parent, school and community councils have real clout. While the District is pushing for School Advisory Councils in Philadelphia, it is not clear what real power they would have in their schools. And there are no moves to clarify a larger community or parental role in district-wide governance.
The plain truth is that parents and community members are frustrated by the way the SRC interacts with them. Speakers at meetings get three minutes to make their point — often not enough time to raise a complex issue. And parents tell us that they feel like their concerns “go into a black hole,” without follow-up. They say the whole process is anxiety-producing.
When we took a look at school governance in large, urban districts across the country, one thing stood out: Every governing board has more members. Having only five members on the SRC seems to be a recipe for failure – especially when there are vacancies and one or more members recuse themselves because of conflicts of interest. The workload of the SRC — a volunteer board — is heavy. While it may be hard to find more people willing to serve in what is clearly a thankless job, increasing the number of members may also make the job more appealing by spreading the work around and including more points of view. The old Philadelphia Board of Education had nine members (as do the 499 elected school boards in the state).
If speakers think testifying at an SRC meeting causes anxiety, if there are too few members on the commission to get the work done, and if there is agreement that the School District is purposefully and perpetually underfunded, is it even right to ask that there be civil discourse? We think so. Philadelphians have a right to be angry about unfair funding and too few resources for their children, and it is incumbent upon the appointed officials on the SRC to treat them with respect. In its early years, some SRC meetings were held at neighborhood sites and complaints received follow-up. The tone at too many SRC meetings in recent years has been one of disdain and disrespect. While it would behoove both the commissioners and the public to be respectful toward each other, we do believe setting the right tone starts with the commissioners.
We hope that the addition of three new members on the SRC (Sylvia Simms’ term is up in January) will usher in a new spirit of openness and cooperation that will allow the District to move forward in a positive way until a plan to return Philadelphia school governance to local control can be put in place.