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A first look at the new SRC

By Dale Mezzacappa on Mar 28, 2009 04:11 PM

Patting themselves and others on the back for progress made over the last six years in the city schools, Mayor Nutter and Gov. Rendell nevertheless announced that it was time for a change in the leadership of the School Reform Commission.

 At a Saturday press conference held at School of the Future, the mayor and governor unveiled their new appointees – chair Robert Archie, a distinguished attorney and Philadelphia public school graduate; Joseph Dworetzky, a former city solicitor; and Johnny Irizarry, a community activist and director of the Center for Hispanic Excellence at the University of Pennsylvania. Gov. Rendell re-appointed Heidi Ramirez, whom he first named in 2007 to fill an unexpired term. 

Archie and Irizarry, appointed by Nutter, will be able to take their seats at the April board meeting, in time to make important decisions regarding Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s strategic plan, called Imagine 2014, and the School District’s 2009-10 budget – which will have more than $325 million in additional funds due largely to the federal stimulus money and the governor’s plan for distributing it. 

Dworetzky and Ramirez, Rendell’s appointees, require confirmation by the state Senate, a process that often takes months. But Ramirez can continue to serve in the interim. Only Dworetzky’s seating will be delayed. 

Chairwoman Sandra Dungee Glenn and commissioner Martin Bednarek, whose terms expired, were not reappointed. Rendell announced that he was appointing Dungee Glenn, whom he praised lavishly, to the State Board of Education. The fifth - and now the senior - member of the SRC, Denise McGregor Armbrister, has served for two years on the body, which was created in 2001 after the state took over the city schools. 

Reconfiguring the commission's membership, which was done entirely behind closed doors, took months of negotiation between the mayor and governor. They both said that it was because they were busy with other things, but the process is one of the least transparent in the city and the subject of intense political jockeying. In other Pennsylvania school districts, the boards of education are elected. 

While community activists and others who attended the announcement seemed happy with the quality of the new appointees, others said the process itself still leaves a lot to be desired.   

“Even if they are good people, they deserve a better process than they got,” said Helen Gym, a founder of Parents United for Public Education. “The governor and the mayor had a unique opportunity to show that the SRC had a chance to shed its political vestiges and instead they reverted back to the same backdoor political jockeying that reinforces the disconnect between the public and the leadership of the School District.”

With many controversial decisions in the offing, including what to prioritize among the elements of the 30-page laundry list of initiatives in Imagine 2014, the public really has little sense of exactly what the role of the SRC should be and how deeply it should delve into details while setting policy. While there have been community meetings around town on the plan, there is still little sense of how the input will affect the final product. 

Lori Shorr, Mayor Nutter’s chief education officer, said that there are plans to orient the new members with a “serious on-boarding process, to go over all sorts of things, what’s the role of the SRC, all of this. 

“If they understand their roles, they can focus their energies,” Shorr said. She acknowledged that the SRC and the District’s operations need to align their processes for community engagement and function less like two parallel organizations. 

Nutter said that he regarded the SRC as a “policy-making body within broad parameters,” while the superintendent does “day to day management” and “implementation.” Nutter said that he had been briefed on Imagine 2014 and said it has “some exciting, dynamic elements,” but that flexibility would be key to real change. 

Both Nutter and Rendell said that he notwithstanding the SRC’s accomplishments, it was time for a change in leadership.

“It’s no reflection on Sandra or Marty (Bednarek),” said Nutter. “I looked around and decided it was time for a change and putting in my own appointments.”

Rendell said that he felt the new members were better positioned to work more closely with the business community, which he said is crucial to improving the system.

“We wanted a fresh look,” he said. 

Archie is a partner at Duane Morris, LLP and has worked primarily in municipal finance, real estate and corporate law for nonprofit corporations. A resident of Mount Airy, he has represented both the city and School District in the past. 

He said he will resign from the board of the Universal Institute Charter School and possibly from the board of trustees at Lincoln University, his alma mater. “I have an obligation to give back,” he said in explaining why he agreed to take on what some consider a thankless job. 

Dworetzky said he expected the position to be “overwhelming.” As city solicitor when Rendell was mayor, he represented Philadelphia in the long-running school desegregation case, which in the mid-1990s had devolved into a case about providing more resources to racially isolated schools. Commonwealth Court Judge Doris Smith had ordered all kinds of reforms and programs, and the state and city tussled over who should foot the bill. Dworetzky argued that under the state constitution to provide all children with a “thorough and efficient” education, it was Harrisburg’s responsibility. Smith agreed, but higher courts removed her jurisdiction in the case.

Irizarry, who grew up in East Harlem and said he entered kindergarten not speaking a word of English, said that “education is my passion.” He holds a Master’s Degree in Urban Education from Temple and worked as a curriculum developer for the School District.

A former nonprofit executive director and official in two charter schools that primarily serve the Latino community, Irizarry said he wanted to study more closely Ackerman’s plans for turning over some low-performing schools to charter management organizations or other entities for “turnaround.”

“I want to see what’s really being proposed,” he said.

Comments (13)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 29, 2009 9:41 am

Is anyone questioning the close ties to charter schools that two of the new appointees have? Does this signal the priorities of the mayor and governor? And will there be any district schools left by 2014 or will we have just sold them all of to the charters one by one?

Submitted by Paul Socolar on March 29, 2009 1:44 pm

To add to Dale's response - I don't think it's a reasonable assumption that because the mayor's two appointees each have some history of involvement with charters means that they support dismantling of the traditional public schools and replacement by charters. A number of the vocal critics of the notion that charter or private management is the way to turn around low-performing schools have connections to charter schools.

Charter schools are with us to stay, in one form or another. The Notebook covers them as we do other public schools, both to ensure greater accountability and to point to positive things we can learn from charters. We have seen that within the charter movement, there are many who see charters' role as complementing rather than undermining traditional public schools and aren't opposed to efforts to figure out how to do that.

Submitted by EnoughIsEnuff!!! (not verified) on March 30, 2009 9:48 pm

Sure, a good charter school should be copied by public schools. However, 440 refuses to allow public schools to have these same changes. When public schools do something right (anyone remember the Reconstructed Program that suddenly disappeared) the funds are withdrawn with some lame excuse by the folks down at Palace Vallas.

Edison has been run out of how many cities now? They are getting the boot down in Baltimore as we speak, but Philly still puts out the welcome mat for them. Who is really benefiting from their occupation of the Philadelphia public schools? Surely not the children.

If Nutter sends his kid to public school shouldn't Archie be made to do the same?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 30, 2009 10:37 pm

I agree that the EMOs, especially the for profit, have proven unworthy of SDP funding. The EMOs that are non profit, like Penn and Temple, still have the advantage of additional per pupil funding. Whether or not this is a "sound investment," since it doesn't appear equitable if the only basis of the funding is it is an EMO, the SDP needs to stop being their "cash down."

Charter schools are different from EMOs. They receive 80% of the funding as SDP schools. There are charter schools that are lousy with corrupt administrators but most are doing the many things a school should do for all the stakeholders, which obviously includes students and their families. There are SDP schools doing the same. One of the problems, as you mention, with the SDP is "downtown" does not give some schools enough autonomy, the funding to develop programs and stick with them for more than a few years. I have also known too many SDP schools to not be very inviting to families.

That said, Nutter's daughter has had the "best" of Philly schools. She went to Meredith for elementary, which is not her neighborhood school, and now is at Masterman. If a family either does not have the connections, can't afford to live in a well to do neighborhood with "high performing" schools" such as Center City, the far Northeast or Mt. Airy, or does not have children who score high enough on a standardized test, charter schools provide an alternative to a lousy neighborhood school.

My neighborhood elementary schools are corrective action "whatever," and are known for upheaval / violence. I applied for my children to go to 8 "out of neighborhood" public schools under NCLB guidelines in 2004-5. They did not get in any "lottery" that is allegedly held for other neighborhood schools. I applied to 7 charter schools. Initially, they did not make any of their lotteries. They were on a waiting list. Fortunately, one of my kid's lottery number came up, then they all were able to switch to the charter school under sibling preference. It is not a perfect school but it is very welcoming of family involvement and not trapped by the SDP standardized curricula. They do more than prepare for the PSSA.

Yes, there are exciting things going on in some neighborhood schools but as a parent who can't afford to live in a well to do neighborhood, can't afford private school tuition and doesn' t have children who will score high enough for Masterman, I appreciate the alternative charter schools provide. As I wrote, there are lousy charter schools and good charter schools but neither should be equated with SDP EMOs.

Submitted by Dale Mezzacappa on March 29, 2009 1:50 pm

I asked both Mayor Nutter and Gov. Rendell if the new appointments signaled a deliberate direction towards a more charter-friendly board. They both said no.

Submitted by Keith newman (not verified) on March 29, 2009 5:08 pm

When Mayor Nutter was running for office he elicited four criteria to determine whether EMOs stay or go:
1. Is the EMO truly providing a service the District could not provide itself? We should contract out only when the provider offers a particular expertise that the District doesn’t have and doesn’t need to develop.
The answer here is clearly that EMOs do not provide a service the district could not provide itself
2. Have the EMOs succeeded in spurring competition and efficiency? If so, how much money have we saved and what are we doing with the savings?
Every research report with the exceptions of the ones paid for by EMOs has concluded there has been no spurring of competition, and that EMOs have been expensive, costing the district over $100 million

3. Can we ensure accountability by the EMOs? I believe there has been insufficient oversight of services and operations that have been contracted out. This opens the potential for political influence and “pay to play” influence by organizations and individuals who get contracts.
We know the contracted services such as janitorial have not produced cleaner buildings. We can only hope that the Mayor and Governor have not been influenced by pay to play. It would be a shame if newspaper reporters uncover evidence that their mysterious choices for the School Reform Commission were influenced by pay to play.
3. Have the EMOs provided enhanced choice for students/parents recent evaluation by Research for Action suggests that the answer may be – “not enough.”
The report by Research For Action concluded there was no benefit in maintaining EMOs. Perhaps that is why Edison, the nations largest EMO is managing 40% fewer schools now than it was six years ago.

Will Robert Archie and Johnnie Irizarry act on the criteria the Mayor elucidated? Or we will be left wondering why the School District of Philadelphia remains ineffective with a continuous budget deficit?

Submitted by EnoughIsEnuff!!! (not verified) on March 29, 2009 11:16 pm

It's interesting to note that the last foothold Edison has in the educational field is in Philadelphia. Everyone else seems to have caught onto what they are really like, but Philly refuses to let go. That speaks volumes about how business is done here in Pay-To-Playadelphia.

We know Rendell is no good, but I had hopes that Nutter might be a change for the better. I'm not so sure now.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 30, 2009 9:34 pm

Just to correct a statement above, Bob Archie's children are fully grown and are no longer of school-age.

Submitted by EnoughIsEnuff!!! (not verified) on March 30, 2009 11:51 pm

So the Philadelphia Inquirer was lying in their piece on Bob last week? It distinctly said his children went to a private school. Or did they suddenly grow up over the weekend once people started questioning their dad's sincerity?

Submitted by Dale Mezzacappa on March 31, 2009 9:00 am

The verb is "went." They attended a private school, but are now grown. Your remark about Mr. Archie is uncalled for.

Submitted by EnoughIsEnuff!!! (not verified) on March 31, 2009 8:08 pm

Fair enough, the word was "attended", but regardless, they were sent to a "private" school and their father is being put in charge of an oversized school district of public schools. Sorry if I seem skeptical, but what warrants him being in this position? Has he ever taught in a public school? Why is someone so tightly connected to the charter school movement being allowed to call the shots in our public schools? Because of his campaign contribution to Rendell? Why is there not a single educator on the SRC? One word . . . politicians.

You're entitled to your opinion, but so am I. I will continue to state my feelings even if you care to disagree. Why do you think he should be running the SRC? I think the SRC has proven a major failure and should be dismantled promptly.

Submitted by Down in the Basement (not verified) on March 31, 2009 9:38 pm

Enuff is a Enuff is my intellectual hero...I agree one hundred percent with what Enuff is saying...

Maybe the Notebook will have Enuff as a contributor...

"Went;" "attended;" does it really matter?

Submitted by Helen Gym on April 1, 2009 8:48 am

Heidi Ramirez is director of the Urban Education Collaborative at Temple University and has studied public school issues.

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