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Who's on first?

By Len Rieser on Aug 23, 2009 11:53 PM

I wondered, in the wake of Heidi Ramirez’ resignation, whether state law is at all unclear about the respective roles of the SRC and the superintendent.   

The 2001 takeover law, quaintly entitled “Distress in school districts of the first class,” is actually a sledgehammer of a statute, designed to place broad powers in the hands of the newly-created SRC. (Inconveniently, the takeover law isn’t readily available on the web – in fact, none of Pennsylvania’s statutes are – but you can find it by going to a law library and asking to see 24 PS § 6-696, or by contacting me.)

Among other things, the law says flatly that the SRC shall be responsible for “the operation, management and educational program of the school district of the first class” -- about as sweeping a provision as could be written.

And that's only the beginning.  The law goes on to say that the SRC’s duties encompass all those of the school board that it replaced. That’s a long list, including the authority to “define the general policies of the school system, … [t]o legislate upon all matters pertaining thereto, … [t]o determine and direct all expenditures for the maintenance and improvement of the school system,” and to appoint school district officers and “define their duties.” (Those provisions are found at 24 PS § 21-2103.)

In addition, the law lists a great many new duties and powers for the SRC, including the power to “reallocate resources [and] amend school procedures,” to employ and suspend employees, and to “supervise and direct principals, teachers and administrators.” (That's pretty remarkable: the SRC, for better or worse, actually has the power to supervise lower-level employees – not just the top brass.) And I’ve left out a lot more SRC powers and duties, including provisions concerning charter schools, the hiring of consultants and managers, the negotiation of union contracts, and more.

Finally, the law speaks to the relationship between the school board (now the SRC) and the superintendent of schools and any assistants.  These officials “shall be responsible to the board [now SRC] for the conduct of their respective departments, … and shall from time to time submit such plans and suggestions for the improvement of the schools and the school system as they shall deem expedient or as the board of public education may require.” (§ 21-2104; my emphasis.)

In short, the legislators who wrote the takeover law back in 2001 had in mind a strong, independent SRC – even more powerful than an “ordinary” school board. 

Given that, there's no room to question whether an SRC member should make every effort to become informed about District plans and activities – or to ask the questions (and even “require” the answers) that are necessary in order to make her own judgments about them. On the contrary, it would be improper for an SRC member not to do that.

Reasonable people can differ over whether the SRC arrangement still suits our needs, but our elected officials, from governor on down, have continued to argue that we’re not ready for a change. Until that change comes, the SRC is in charge, and is required to be a team of active, independent thinkers, questioners, and decision-makers.  Whether that has been the reality is another question.  But we definitely don't need Abbott and Costello to tell us who's on first.

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Comments (16)

Submitted by Philly High School Teacher (not verified) on August 24, 2009 4:07 pm

Thank you for summarizing the SRC law. Hopefully, Dr. Ackerman and her staff and the members of the SRC will read it!

Submitted by Sheila Simmons (not verified) on August 24, 2009 8:00 pm

Nicely done, Len! Great information.

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on August 24, 2009 9:39 pm

Can someone tell me why "Heidi" is the Joan of Arc for the Philly Notebook crowd?

What makes her wear the white hat...and Ackerman is the villain?

I don't understand the logic...they are both partners district politics...

Submitted by Len Rieser on August 24, 2009 11:43 pm

I don't think my piece cast anyone as either villain or hero (though I personally feel that Heidi Ramirez was an excellent Commissioner, and I regret her departure).  Nor did I suggest that the SRC was uninvolved in "politics" (is anything in Philadelphia not involved with politics?!).  I was simply trying to give an objective picture of the extent of the SRC's responsibilities as established by our legislature.

What I found, again, was that, under current law (whether we like it or not), the Commission has been given an extremely broad duty of oversight.  As I see it, this means that the Commissioners have a clear legal responsibility to ask enough questions to be thoroughly informed about important questions facing the district, as well as a legal duty to determine their own views on those questions. This conclusion certainly doesn't depend on whether I happen to approve of the opinions of any particular Commissioner -- it applies to all, regardless.

Joan of Arc does not really fit into my analysis.  So far as I know, we have not yet had any actual saints appointed to either the SRC or to District administration. 

Submitted by Helen Gym on August 24, 2009 11:57 pm

At the time of the state takeover, I don't think there was any question about the intent and role of the SRC's influence and control. One evidence of this was that the initial terms of the state appointees was intended to outlast Rendell's first term.  It's also important to remember that with the Nevels SRC, a number of votes often swung 3-2 with a lot of public debate, questioning  and disagreement about different initiatives. It's partly why it's so surprising to see this SRC/District so reluctant and even threatened by healthy public dialogue and questioning. Thanks for an excellent post Len.



Submitted by Paul Socolar on August 25, 2009 12:00 am

It seems like Len has provided with a very clear answer to one very important question - the law envisions a strong SRC, not a rubber stamp, and so it seems to call for commissioners who are engaged, vocal and sometimes disagree with the superintendent.

An equally important question is: what do WE the public want from the SRC, within the parameters of the law?   Heidi Ramirez had an approach to the job of SRC member that has garnered a very  positive reaction on this blog.  If we were writing a job description for SRC member based on how she did the job, it would include:

-regularly attending SRC meetings and other district functions

-doing homework as needed to be knowledgeable of the issues being discussed

-asking for answers in public SRC sessions about issues she was expected to vote on

-meeting with parent and community organizations to get input on issues

-being accessible by phone or email

-talking to the media about the issues and her votes

-encouraging public participation at the SRC meetings and elsewhere

It seems like it's a good time for the public to be asking: which of these are roles/responsibilities we would expect of all SRC members? We don't get to elect the SRC, but there are still ways to communicate expectations and hold them accountable.

Submitted by Len Rieser on August 25, 2009 7:16 am

We could add to this list another thing that Heidi Ramirez (and, actually, most of the other SRC Commissioners I've observed) have seemed to do a good job of:

-being respectful toward District staff at all levels, and refraining from micro-managing their work.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 25, 2009 10:29 am

Philadelphia Daily News
Posted on Tue, Aug. 25, 2009

SRC needs to learn its ABCs

AS INTERIM chief executive officer of the Philadelphia schools in 2000-2001, there were many days I wished I'd a magic wand to make board members disappear. I had a job to do, so how could I answer all their questions, from the mundane to the important to the inappropriate?
So I can understand how School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman might've been frustrated by inquisitive SRC member Heidi Ramirez, who recently announced her resignation, citing her frustration at being ignored.

Fortunately, I never had that magic wand and, I hope, Ackerman won't get one, either. Board members are essential to the public process and the more thoughtful they are, like Ramirez, the better.

Let's remember why the SRC was created. It was intended to oversee the school district after state leaders lost confidence in the district and its governance and refused to provide more funding without more state oversight.

The SRC wasn't created to become simply another school board. It was intended to be an independent, powerful quasi-regulatory group with a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers, students, their parents, the city and the state.

After an initial flurry of publicity and goodwill, the SRC failed to provide the oversight needed to rein in the district's then-chief executive officer, the energetic Paul Vallas. Despite getting an influx of significant state and city financial aid, the district soon found itself mired in red ink.

The SRC now consists of two new members, including chairman Robert Archie; a member who rarely asks a question publicly; and one vacancy in addition to the departing Ramirez, apparently shunned for asking probing questions like "How much will it cost?"

Add to this mix a strong-willed Ackerman, no shrinking violet. She touts her experience of having headed two other urban districts and talks about "the children" as if she is the only one who cares about the students.

If there seems to be a mismatch between the SRC and its No. 1 employee, it's because there apparently is. That should be a red flag for those who believe in a healthy system of checks and balances.

As for other checks and balances the independent school-safety-advocate post was recently eliminated by the state. (Ackerman also wanted the district's inspector general to report to her rather than the SRC.) Even the largest and most vocal union, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, has been significantly weakened, for better or worse, paying the price for clinging to the past rather than changing with the times.

Our governor and mayor are bogged down with their own fiscal emergencies, which aren't likely to go away quickly regardless of the eventual passage of a state budget. And City Council pays scant attention to school district issues.

Finally, it must be noted that our newspapers are fighting for their lives and don't have enough resources to adequately cover public education. In fact, the Ramirez resignation was first reported by the small independent Philadelphia Public School Notebook.

If there was any institution in town that needs oversight, it's our schools. Its budget of more than $3 billion is nearly the size of the city's, and it has more employees. The potential for skulduggery is far greater than in city government, and its importance to the economic and fiscal health of the city cannot be overstated.

The Ackerman-Ramirez affair may seem like a lot of who-struck-John. But it represents a far more important issue. Just who will provide the financial, intellectual and policy oversight for public education in Philadelphia? If the SRC is to perform its role, it needs members with guts, intellectual curiosity and an understanding of the ABCs of their job.

A is for accountability. Ensure that the superintendent is meeting her timetables, that the budget is realistic and that variances are known as soon as possible. Ensure that contracts are bid and rewarded fairly, that employees are treated equitably.

B is for boldness. We can't afford timid souls on the SRC. We need insightful members who provide probing, out-of-the-box thinking on how to transform the district. They need to know the difference between having the superintendent's back when she makes tough decisions and backing off for fear of her wrath.

C is for credibility. Listen and respond to questions and concerns of parents and other interested parties. The public wants to know that its concerns are being heard. They are the customers - and are leaving our schools in droves.

State Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, who has denied being involved in any deal over the Ramirez resignation, had it right when he said he thought SRC members should have "demonstrated knowledge in a relevant field" and "the strength of character to be independent and speak their mind."

With a doctorate and two master's degrees in education and two years on the SRC, the independent Ramirez sure fills that bill. Maybe Pillegi and Gov. Rendell can finally agree on one thing: Get Ramirez to stay

Submitted by venard johnson (not verified) on August 25, 2009 6:10 pm

I wish Dr. Ramirez had showed the character needed an remained a member of the SRC. She could have always voted her mind if she agreed or not. I respect her for her work;in the past.
It is now time to move forward and improve the quality of education for all Philadelphia's Children. It seem's that everytime we get close to improving the education,for all children, some issue come's up that take's the energy from the improvement of all our children's education.
Dr. Ackerman attended several meetings, this summer, and the plan for educational change was welcomed. It was very clear that the parent's and community leader's said that Dr. Ackerman was their voice for change. The focus should not be on either "Doc"; but on the educational lives of our student's.
Stop fooling around and become part of the effort to deliver a good educational product for our student's and their familie's.
Let's move forward now!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 25, 2009 10:17 pm

"It was very clear that the parent's and community leader's said that Dr. Ackerman was their voice for change."

i take issue with this statement.

yes, ackerman won over parents with personal stories about her upbringing and being a hardworking single mother. yes, lots of parents and community members can relate to her, and they appreciate her decisiveness & drive. i myself was charmed by her and believed that she had our children's best interests at heart. i was even able to overlook her dictator-like attitude, when i thought she was truly concerned about equality for all students. but, as i got more familiar with what she is actually doing (or NOT doing) in schools, her words about equity and closing the achievement gap seem more and more like empty promises.

she can talk a good game, and lots of parents still have high hopes for her. but i think more and more parents will, like me, start to question their first impressions of her, as more and more of her claims to 'close the gap' fall flat.

and as far as i have seen, she is happy to talk to parents that will eat up her rhetoric. but once parents get together and start talking, and start having questions and criticisms of her plans, she blocks them out (just like she did to heidi ramirez).

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 25, 2009 11:18 pm

Amen - Dr. Ackerman has the gift of gab. She is a story teller but no one else gets in a word - certainly not a questioning word.

Submitted by venard johnson (not verified) on August 26, 2009 4:44 pm

I do not know if you attended the meetings at the Kingsessing Rec.CTr, Comegys School or the meeting held at the church at Broad and Diamond. I believe the community voiced their concern's, thoughts and ideas. She did not get a free ride and it was not planned for her to get a free ride. The ned for change was discussed at all these meetings. Ket's plan to bring her to your community. You organize the meeting . I will work with you to bring hwer to the meeting. The stage will be yours to develop ande control. Let the focus be education; a quality education for all children

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 26, 2009 2:47 pm

"She blocks them out" just like she did in Washington DC. San Francisco and Seattle . . . now Philly. Ackerman never learns from her mistakes (she's got enough of them to choose from too).

Submitted by venard johnson (not verified) on August 26, 2009 4:40 pm

I am not attempting to defind Dr. Ackerman; she can do that for herself. What I am speaking of is a plan that will give communties the opp. to get involved with the changes that need to happen in,their, all our neighborhood school's. We invited Jerry Jordan,PFT, to attend the meetings this summer to discuss the 5 year plan from the union's point of view. He refused to attend. We could all have benefited if Mr. Jordan would have accepted the invitation. Dr. Ackerman's private /personal life is one thing; yes some of us can relate to her past. I am not focused on that. How do we work together, if that is possible, to move the low performing school's forward and maintain a high level of education for all students.
For many of us that is the only matter that counts. As long as we stay focused on individual's the broader issue of education will fall through the cracks; as always.

Submitted by KTH (not verified) on August 27, 2009 12:38 am

Quite frankly, I wonder what is the REAL fight underway here in Philly? All I know is the education system has been under duress for at least the past 40 years, that I can attest to, and for some reason, there's always the political infighting that just makes me sick. If only we would ALL fight as hard to insist on:
1.) quality education in EVERY neighborhood school, so that children do not have to travel across the city, incurring transportation and other costs.

2.) equity in educational opportunities. so that parents do not have to fight SO hard to get children into what appear to be better schools than their children can walk to.

3.) equity in educational opportunities so that ALL children have access to quality academic and extracurricular activities within their neighborhood schools.

4.) an increased focus on improving the overall graduation rate, thus likelihood that more Philadelphia children will qualify for, and attend, higher education.

5.) increased partnerships with community organizations, such as our own employers and/ or self-owned businesses willing to support our neighborhood schools in better supporting ALL children, not just those in select neighborhoods.

6.) increasing public awareness of what's actually happening in individual schools, and what help could be rendered by the city at large.

7.) promoting a sense of ownership for ALL city schools by supporting those that lag behind.

8.) teaching ALL citizens to respect the power of education, and the value of a public one, in that the majority of the city's children will be educated here.

9.) becoming our own best public relations agents by encouraging others to support the School District of Philadelphia in its quest for much-needed improvement.

10.) insisting that Philadelphians, in general, de-politicize our approach to public education. After all, Democrat as well as Republican, rich as well as poor, Black as well as White (and in-between), children need a good education. We, the "village" need to realign our priorities and understand that when our individual children pursue education, it is among their myriad peers that they will reap their greatest lessons/ rewards. This is the only way we will improve this potentially great city. Otherwise, we tend to focus on individuals in single positions, who, in and of themselves, cannot make all the difference. This cannot be about one positon or role. We must all play a part in this process of change.

Submitted by venard johnson (not verified) on August 27, 2009 11:19 am

Good Morning KTH: You said it better than I was trying to. I would like to invite you , as well as anyone else, to an education workshop at Cheyney University's Urban Education Center, located inside the Mellon Bank Building, 701 Market Street, in downtown Philadelphia. Enter at the Ross Department Store Walk to citizen bank machines, go thru double glass doors, Cheyney U. is located on the 2nd fl. Meeting is from 3pm-5pm; today.

We are meeting with students, parents, and people Community Based Organization that would like to partner to support students efforts to obtain a quality education.

,Let's stop talking and work together to support children in their attempt to obtain a first class education.

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