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What you probably won't hear from the next SRC commissioner ...

Photo: Harvey Finkle

The School Reform Commission

Last month, the terms of four out of the five School Reform Commissioners expired. As the Governor and Mayor mull over their appointments, don’t expect to see anything like this from prospective nominees to the SRC:

Dear fellow School District parents, students, staff and stakeholders:

I am applying for an opportunity to formally serve you as a member of the School Reform Commission. As a former public school teacher, former editor of the Public School Notebook, a board member of a community organization which has founded a charter school, one of the founders of a citywide parents group – Parents United for Public Education – and a mother of public school and charter school students, I believe I have a wide range of experience and values that has taught me the importance of public engagement and made real the mantra that change has to start from the bottom up. As a Commissioner I pledge to improve public access and engagement; bring greater public scrutiny to private contracts; focus on reducing class sizes and creating small school communities; develop a baseline level of education service for each and every school; and engage community members and education stakeholders in a more public budgeting process to better show how our funds are being used in the service of our academic goals. For your consideration I have attached my application, resume and am available for the next public review session. I remain in your service – Helen Gym.

Most cities and townships, after all, elect their school board members and treat them like public officials who campaign to explain their values, qualifications and goals.

Not so for Philadelphia. We have ours appointed for us.

In fact, a School Reform Commission appointment is probably one of the least transparent processes in the School District of Philadelphia. Decided upon in backdoor rooms, at the sole discretion of either the Governor or the Mayor, lacking any written set of responsibilities and expectations, and largely absent public standards for avoiding ethical and financial conflicts of interest, the Commission appointments have long baffled most parents and education observers.

The SRC itself replaced the former Board of Education in 2002 in a roiling shake-up of the public schools. At the time, suspicion was high that appointments were based less on the candidate’s contributions to public education and more on their agreement to execute marching orders around a hostile state takeover that focused on privatization of public education as its primary aim. 

While the pre-takeover Board of Education appointments were far from an ideal model of civic engagement and accountability – all commissioners were appointed by the Mayor – the current School Reform Commission has a split vote between the Governor (who names three commissioners) and the Mayor (who names two commissioners) that makes it particularly vulnerable to political jockeying.

Since its creation, the SRC's secrecy and lack of public engagement have not helped improve the public trust. In particular, the SRC has suffered from a number of missteps which have raised public concern about the agency's oversight and accountability standards, including:

  • the SRC's claim in 2006 that it was unaware of a $73 million budget deficit  despite the fact that parents and community members had been organizing six months before about pending budget problems; 

  • concerns about the SRC’s regular "executive sessions," which one Commissioner even admitted at one point may have violated PA's sunshine laws;  

  • a 2007 scandal involving former SRC Chair James Nevels, who was caught eating out regularly at the Four Seasons on $15,000 worth of District money. Though publicly exposed, Nevels didn’t even get a slap on the wrist for his actions; and

  • the SRC's budget and administrative staff, including its own independent public relations and communications firm as well as administrative staff that has brought the volunteer commission to a $2+ million a year budget.
     

So far the Mayor and Governor are mum on their appointments:

  •  "We don't have an announcement to make at this time and we're not putting out a timeline," Lori Shorr, Nutter's chief education officer, said last night.

  • "The governor is focusing on the budget and the revenue shortfall and the human toll it is taking," said Chuck Ardo, Rendell's spokesman. "He will not comment on the SRC until he has something to say."
     

But there’s a lot that needs to be said about the Commission. Like how now is a great time to reform the Commission appointments in order to make the SRC a better, more publicly accountable agency. Commissioners, after all, are responsible for the oversight of more than $2.3 billion in public money for schools, yet largely remain out of the public eye.

Here are some places to start:

  1. Show us a job description: In all seriousness, beyond showing up twice a month on Wednesday afternoons, what are Commissioners expected to do and be held accountable for? While most Commissioners do more than show up to SRC hearings, the public needs clarity about the roles and responsibilities of Commissioners. It would also go a long way toward identifying what’s relevant in the SRC’s sizeable staff and budget as well as their duties beyond the regularly scheduled public hearings. 

     

  2. Tell us what makes someone qualified to serve: Absent an articulated list of roles and responsibilities, what then makes someone uniquely qualified for the SRC? There is no shortage of people with impressive resumes in this city, but that doesn't mean that they're on the SRC in service to the District or at the behest of political interests. And no matter a Commissioners’ political stripes, for the most part, the general public doesn’t know why they’re there, how they got there and what they are there for. Take a step towards changing that.

  3. Take nominations and create a community review panel: Last year, the SRC took a huge step forward in creating a community panel to interview and assess potential finalists for the District’s CEO position - a job that eventually went to Arlene Ackerman. The state and city would do a lot in following a similar lead with SRC Commissioners.

  4. Broaden the review process and while you're at it, visit Philly: The current process goes something like this: Once the Mayor and Governor name their appointees, the nominees trek to Harrisburg where they’re subjected to closed door interviews by a select group of state legislators. But that is hardly a definition of public review. First, any review process needs to involve local stakeholders as well. Governance of the School District is a cooperative venture between the state and city. Second, legislators ought to conduct any questioning of a public official in public. And while at it, why don’t the state legislators who are responsible for the Philadelphia public schools come down here for those public hearings. Take a look around and talk to some kids and families. You might find things aren’t quite what you thought they were 90 miles away in Harrisburg;

  5. Ensure that potential nominees to the Commission can divulge potential conflicts of interest and adhere to standards regarding ethical behavior: SRC Commissioners sign off on more than $2 billion of public funds, which go towards contracts, spending, administrative use, and much more - far beyond what most people expect for school funds. Because of this, SRC Commissioners need to be open and forthright about political and financial relationships which might raise concerns about possible conflicts of interest. For example, former SRC Chair Nevels ran a billion dollar private equity firm, whose clients included labor unions and public entities. As a businessman, he has every right to keep his client list confidential but as an SRC Commissioner, he should have been a problematic appointment since any conflict of interest with client relationships ought to have been known when public funds were at his disposal. 

There are lots more ideas and possibilities for improving the appointments of SRC Commissioners. What are yours? And what kind of Commissioner would improve your confidence in the public schools?

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Comments (15)

Submitted by Paul Socolar on February 12, 2009 2:23 pm

I got a chance to ask Donna Cooper from the governor's office about the issue of SRC appointments this morning at an education budget briefing sponsored by EPLC ... she reiterated that it's quite simply not been at the top of the hierarchy of needs ... that they just haven't had time to deal with this issue of new appointees. .. but not offering a timeline either. She said she could not speak for the mayor. Lori Shorr, the mayor's education chief, had been on the panel but had left before I posed this question.

A couple of people asked me afterward if I knew what was really behind the delay. I really don't know. As Helen points out, the governor's past practice has been to announce the SRC appointment decision when it's already been made. The nomination has to be approved by the PA Senate, but there's no other public vetting.

Submitted by Lisa Phillips (not verified) on February 12, 2009 7:35 pm

Helen makes excellent points. Mayor Nutter, are you listening?

Submitted by Christopher Paslay (not verified) on February 14, 2009 6:39 pm

Amen to that.

Submitted by Helen Gym on February 12, 2009 8:40 pm

I'm wondering what the lack of attention to these appointments means. After Commissioner Whelan's position went unfilled for months and the state legislature dragged their heels on the appointment of Heidi Ramirez, Parents United actually wrote a letter to the Philadelphia delegation and key state legislators to urge the state to fulfill its duties. I know there's an economic crisis, but the lack of attention to commission appointments just seems rather lazy, no? or maybe there's some political jockeying between the Mayor and Governor that we don't know about.

But when you're talking about $4 billion of public money, I find it hard to believe that any other entity would be so casual about their members.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 13, 2009 9:54 pm

These SRC members with the exception of Dr. Ramirez know little if anything about education. The prerequisite for appointment to the SRC has been ignorance. Sorry Helen, you don't qualify.
Sadly, you all know I'm writing the truth, and that's why the mess we're in will only get worse.

Submitted by CronyismForPennsylvania (not verified) on February 15, 2009 5:12 pm

Isn't this the same governor that "punished" Gregory Thornton (for accepting a free trip to South Africa from a company that Greg then rewarded with a no-bid contract) by putting him in charge of the Chester Public Schools? Gee, I wonder why the public gets no say in who runs the Philadelphia School District?

Considering that former mayor, John Street, was caught trying to sabotage the state takeover of the Philadelphia schools why was he ever allowed to pick two members for the SRC? His two choices definately need to go. Critics of public schools always say that public education should be run like a business. If any CEOs had dropped the ball as many times as the SRC has they would have been fired a long time ago. How come that never seems to happen to any administrators in the Philadelphia School District. They just slip away into the night. . . .

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on February 16, 2009 10:35 pm

Helen’s recommendations for increasing transparency and accountability are excellent. But, as she also notes, the underlying problem is we don’t have the right to elect those who make education policy.
Even before the state takeover we were disenfranchised. The elites that gave us the City Charter decided that the corruption and patronage that characterized the Board of Education in the era of Republican machine rule required vesting the governance of the schools in a Board nominated by a group of notables and appointed by mayor.
If we had an elected Board people like Helen could be on it. We have a a broader and more authentic debate about education policy. And we would have some real accountability. So let’s end the colonial relationship with Harrisburg, amend the city charter and give Philadelphians the democratic right enjoyed by our neighbors in every town and city in the state.

Submitted by Helen Gym on February 17, 2009 5:08 am

I go back and forth around elections, I have to admit. On the face of it, it makes a lot of sense and seems to ensure some amount of participation. But in Philadelphia where ward leaders and the political machine seem to influence a lot of elections, particularly the smaller less known offices, it could leave us vulnerable to the same sort of political jockeying. On the other hand, the place where we are currently has swung to the other extreme where there's zero public participation.

At the very least, we need some outline of clarifications and commitments from SRC members. Perhaps what our communities need to do as well, is to draw up a document that demands that future SRC members commit to a parents agenda, or a students agenda or a labor agenda when it comes to principles, fair practices, ethics, etc.

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on February 17, 2009 3:45 pm

The only real antidote to machine domination of the political process is a strong grass roots progressive movement . An elected School Board would provide the best context for that kind of develpment while
a process based on appointment promotes political passivity.

Moreover elections for School Board could be non-partisan as they are in most cities. This would limit the role of ward leaders and the party machinery.

Submitted by Helen Gym on February 17, 2009 4:24 pm

Do you think elections should be citywide? In New York for example, school board races are divvied up by boroughs promoting regional concerns but also making it more rehashing of borough politics and inequities.

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on February 18, 2009 3:24 pm

That's a good question and one that probably should be the focus on some serious investigation and discussion. Perhaps some combinaiton of regional and city wide slots. As you suggest a Board composed of local representatives might promote more local involvement but it would also tend to parochialism. Inclusion of members elected on a city wide basis hopefully would counter this and provide some unifying vision.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 24, 2009 4:10 pm

Word today is that Dr. Ackerman told her staff SRC appoinments will be announced, Saturday (3/28).

Submitted by Down in the Basement (not verified) on March 24, 2009 4:20 pm

Surprise, Surprise...

Same group will be reappointed...since they have done such a fine job...
Why tamper with success...?

50 percent drop-out rate...today, 50 percent drop-out next year...50 percent drop-out, ten years from now...

Same bunch of scoundrels... making decisions...

Submitted by a parent (not verified) on March 24, 2009 9:12 pm

the Daily News is now saying Nutter's getting rid of Sandra but they don't mention a single name of a possible appointee. What kind of system is this where people who have to live with the consequences have no say in this thing whatsoever?

Submitted by Helen Gym on March 24, 2009 10:00 pm

I find this Daily News story rather surprising. It will be interesting to see if this story bears out, but I think your larger point is well taken. Whoever gets selected, it won't have been a case where we understand what the qualifications are, what the expectations are and whether the incoming SRC members perceive themselves as public servants who respond and are responsive to parents, teachers, the public and the press.

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