Many, including Mayor Kenney, have wondered aloud in the past if the dissolution of the SRC would damage relations with Harrisburg and imperil attempts at cooperation. Monson and Geary, however, said they noticed no change in lawmaker attitudes toward the formula change, even as the momentum gathered for local control.
Neither the SRC nor the new Board of Education has taxing authority, a peculiarity that affects only Philadelphia among the state’s 500 school districts. As a result, the District has no control over its revenues, which has made planning and budgeting particularly difficult.
Some advocates said they would continue to press for an elected school board that could levy its own taxes.
SRC members, some of whom have been on the board for mere months, said this is the time to take action.
Though the District is facing future deficits, “through tough choices, increased funding from our stakeholders, establishment of a five-year budget plan and smart fiscal management, we are in a stronger positions to face these deficits than ever before,” said McGinley.
Green, who quit City Council to become chair of the SRC, disagreed. He cautioned that thinking it will be easy to keep the District financially solvent is “magical thinking.”
He recommended that the new board members insist that the city raise its share of funding to the District by $150 million for 2018-19, the equivalent of an 11 percent property tax increase. That is enough, he said, to deal with the $450 million shortfall projected through 2020-21.
“Waiting until after an election year to raise these funds, as will be the instinct, will lead to the need to raise $218 million in the 2019-20 fiscal year and deeper cuts if not raised,” Green said.
That is just to maintain the District’s current programming, not to make improvements and add programs. “To be clear, stability is not the same as additional investment,” Green added.
Green left City Council when he was appointed to lead the SRC by then-Gov. Tom Corbett but removed as chair by Gov. Tom Wolf. A particular target of angry and frustrated education advocates, Green predicted that any “honeymoon” between the activists and the Mayor and Council “will end with demands that can’t be met and result in renewed dissatisfaction.”
Jimenez said she voted no because while she favors a return to local control, she can’t agree that the District is no longer in distress, citing the impending shortfalls.
While the District leadership “has been an exemplary steward of the limited resources it has been granted...there can also be no question that the School District of Philadelphia is in distress,” she said.
Officials laid out a detailed timeline for the transition. Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera will need to certify the action by Dec. 31. Kenney will appoint a 13-member nominating panel by mid-December, which will recommend three names for each of the nine openings.
Kenney hopes to make his appointments by February. The new board members will spend time with the commissioners to familiarize themselves with the issues and thoroughly prepare for their duties. They will begin attending SRC meetings in March and can hold an organizational meeting before July 1.
The charter change that would add Council approval to the process for naming school board members could not be enacted before May, but Wilkerson said there have been “extensive conversations” between the Kenney administration and Council about how to proceed from here.
Governor Wolf did not pledge to certify the SRC’s dissolution vote, although he did, through a spokesperson, hint that his Secretary of Education will OK the move.
“Governor Wolf has long supported Philadelphia residents – and not Harrisburg politicians – having local control of schools,” said spokesperson J.J. Abbott. “The Department of Education will begin its review of the School Reform Commission’s dissolution request.”
Kenney and Clarke’s statement urging a vote to dissolve the SRC noted that the city cannot rely on the state for significantly more funds, since it has its own fiscal challenges, including lower credit ratings brought on by its budgeting practices. The General Assembly passed a budget without the revenue to pay for it.
“While we refuse to let the General Assembly off the hook for providing the thorough and efficient education required under the Pennsylvania Constitution, we also know we must face the reality that they have consistently proven unwilling to face that responsibility,” their written testimony said. “In the meantime, we understand that Philadelphia must make the sacrifices necessary to provide the resources all students in Philadelphia schools need to succeed. For that reason, we believe the time to dissolve the SRC and to reclaim local authority over the School District is right for all funding partners, including the General Assembly.”
Like Geary and Monson, they maintain that the SRC dissolution “will strengthen the existing partnership between the Commonwealth, City, and District” rather than cause Harrisburg to write off the city schools entirely.
They also note that a fair funding lawsuit awaits a hearing before the state Supreme Court, and say local control “will also allow our City government and School District to join forces with districts and municipalities across the Commonwealth that are pushing for equitable and apolitical school funding reform.”
Kenney and Clarke concluded: “The time is right to return the School District of Philadelphia to local control and accountability.”
State Sen. Vincent Hughes said that the task ahead is still "to force the Commonwealth to fund education fairly and equitably regardless of race or geography." He noted that his legislative district stretches from Philadelphia to wealthy suburban areas, with "12 kids in a class, flat screen TVs with a weather center...I see visibly what is available to children less than two miles outside the Philadelphia county line."
Invoking names like Ruby Bridges and Thurgood Marshall and their work to desegregate schools, Hughes said school funding is a civil rights issue, and the task is "to force others to realize that commitment, equitable funding and adequate funding to create 21st century schools."
Wilkerson said that she was “excited” by the city’s assumption of local control and by a new level of cooperation between the city and District, because “nothing is more important to a strong Philadelphia” than a good education system.
“It has been an enormous challenge moving the needle in the School District,” said Wilkerson, who worked in Mayor John Street’s administration when the state takeover occurred.
But she also noted that there are big challenges ahead. “None of us is deluded that by changing governance we are going to change things overnight,” she said.