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Pritchett: 'A new day, a new relationship'

By Benjamin Herold on Oct 5, 2011 11:17 AM
Photo: Benjamin Herold

Newly named SRC interim chair Wendell Pritchett calls his first meeting to order.

Updated 7:30 p.m.

Still in the midst of a significant makeover, the School Reform Commission met Wednesday with two empty seats, a new chairman, and two new "executive advisors" closely observing their work.

Wednesday morning, Gov. Tom Corbett announced that he will name his most recent nominee, Pedro Ramos, as SRC chair. Senate confirmation of Ramos' nomination, however, is not expected until later this month. In the meantime, Corbett announced, new mayoral appointee Wendell Pritchett will serve as interim chair.

Just hours after the announcement, Pritchett presided over his first meeting with the SRC, the group's twice-delayed September voting meeting.

“I’m honored and humbled by this position – and also intimidated,” said Pritchett, who is chancellor at Rutgers-Camden.

Pritchett acknowledged that the SRC is facing "major challenges."

Issues confronting the body include tens of millions of dollars in budget cuts that still need to be implemented, the possibility of widespread school closings, and a deep reserve of public mistrust following revelations of political interference and backroom dealing on a potentially lucrative charter contract at Martin Luther King High.

Parent Christine Carlson was one of several speakers to raise concerns about how the SRC does business.

"I'm asking you to tell me, what you have learned from past occurrences and what is going to be different?" said Carlson during public testimony.

Pritchett told her that the commission would "commit to act in an open and transparent manner." Neither Joseph Dworetzky or Denise McGregor Armbrister, who have both served on the commission for over a year, responded directly to Carlson.  

John J. Krol, a long-time mechanic for the District, also testified that he encountered intimidation when he signed up to speak to the SRC about the 1,300 layoff notices received by members of the union representing maintenance employees. He said two different central office staffers tried to dissuade him from speaking before the body.

"I feel I should be able to speak freely and openly with the matter of these layoffs," said Krol.

After the meeting, Pritchett spoke with reporters – a pointed departure from the practice of his predecessor, Robert Archie – and addressed the issue of skepticism about the commission's transparency and responsiveness to public input.

"I understand that is a big concern," said Pritchett.  "We commit as a commission to work in an open and transparent manner.  We have to get the public's respect and trust in this process."

He declined to identify specific practices that might change, however, saying that the SRC needed to be fully constituted with five commissioners before any such decisions could be made. 

Pritchett also introduced the District’s two new “executive advisors,” named yesterday by Mayor Michael Nutter and Pennsylvania education secretary Ronald Tomalis to provide support and informal oversight to the SRC and to Acting Superintendent Leroy Nunery.

Both Lori Shorr, who is Nutter’s chief education officer, and Ed Williams, a former District administrator appointed by the state, addressed the audience.

“I'm thrilled to be part of this partnership. It is the first time that you will see the School District, the state, and the city all coming together to create a vision and a plan for Philadelphia students,” said Williams.

Shorr, who will continue her responsibilities for the mayor while also filling her new role, said after the meeting that she had spent the entire day in her new office at District headquarters at 440 North Broad Street.  She said that greater oversight of the commissioners by their appointing authorities could help restore public trust.  

"You now have a mayor and a governor who are taking more responsibility for the actions of the SRC in a way that they didn't before," said Shorr.

Nunery said he welcomed the input of his new "executive advisors," as well as a new "working group" charged with reviewing the District's financial and operational practices. Nunery stressed that he did not see the move as demonstrating a lack of faith in his leadership, which he said would be focused on “rebuilding the culture” of the District after a tumultuous last year.

“We need to heal, there’s no question about it,” said Nunery.

In the weeks ahead, the District must also implement a “gap closing plan” to address what remains of a $600-plus million budget shortfall, and is slated to moved forward with its facilities master planning process, which could result in dozens of school closings.

"Everybody knows that [school closings and other facilities changes] are something that is long overdue. It's been hard to the city to take up in previous years, and it's not going to be any easier now," said Dworetzky.

Armbrister said she wanted to make sure the commission also focuses this year on "climate and decorum in our schools."

"That's something that troubles me," she said.

Education consultant and longtime SRC-watcher Venard Johnson said afterward that the new leadership of the commission should be given some time "to get a grip on things," but voiced what seems to be a widespread sentiment about the ongoing changes in District leadership.

"We need to see: Will they really begin to open up to hear parent and community input?" said Johnson.

The SRC planing meeting previously scheduled for October 12 has been cancelled. This month's action meeting has been moved from October 19 to October 26.

A second mayoral appointee is expected soon. 

Benjamin Herold's report for WHYY.
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Comments (21)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 5, 2011 7:59 pm

As long as Nunnery and YES, even Nutter are still involved, we are doomed. What it means is that Gamble, Evans and the rest of the same old crooks will still be stealing from the charters which, of course, steal from the real schools. What a Ponzi scheme they have going.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 5, 2011 7:07 pm

Who knows if there is substance behind it, but this seems to at least be a positive step. An SRC that speaks to a press and a Supt. that doesn't make a show of himself in public.

I have no idea what kind of leader he would be, but the fact that Nunnery has been running the District for over a month and hasn't found the need to make a spectacle of himself is a refreshing contrast. I don't necessarily know if he's the best choice, but honestly, he at least seems much less tone deaf than Dr. A and would probably not bring in the "I need to change everything" mindset that a national-search hire would probably bring.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on October 6, 2011 6:34 am

I was at the meeting yesterday, too, and I found the tone very different and mostly conciliatory. Lee, if I may call him by his first name, spoke about the need for "healing." I certainly support him. He is our leader and we should join him on that effort.

There was also talk about the addition of Lori Shorr and Ed Williams as the beginning of a "new partnership" between the state, the mayor and the district. Joe Dworetzky spoke of his support for that initiative. I certainly can applaud that thinking.

i believe it was Mr. Pritchett who spoke about "a new relationship" with the public. He spoke about earning the public's trust and respect. Great start.

Ms. Armbrister, who I like and respect, spoke that her primary interest is changing the climate in our schools. I hope she is talking about both the instructional climate of orderliness and the climate between the teachers and administration in our schools. For our teachers to do their best, there must be a climate of mutual respect, collegiality, collaboration, professionalism and caring about each other. That starts with the leadership.

They are certainly ideals we can all support. We need our leaders to "rebuild the community of our schools and district." I wish all of them well. Good luck and thanks for taking on the challenge.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on October 8, 2011 9:17 am

Part of my attraction to the work of the Notebook is that they give us a forum for the open discussion of what are the "best practices" in our profession. The issues of governance and leadership are squarely before us at this time.

Yesterday, I read with interest an advertisement in the Inquirer for applicants for the board of trustees for the Delaware County Community College, a public school. They put out a public notice and opportunity to apply for that critical leadership position. Anyone who lives in Delaware County and feels they are qualified is invited to apply.

I wish to contrast that more open process with how our leaders are chosen for the School District of Philadelphia. Does anyone even know how our leaders are selected for our School District? There are no articulated rules or policies on how we choose our leaders except for that the mayor appoints 2 SRC members and the Governor appoints 3. Our leaders just appear to us through announcements by the Governor and Mayor or their representatives.

May I submit that it is a "better practice" to publicly advertise for applicants for all critical leadership positions and then have an inclusive, open and transparent process for choosing our leaders.

Leadership Matters and so does it Matter how we choose our leaders, It matters so much to the issue of building public "trust and credibility" in the leadership and governance of our schools and school system.

Our school system is a "Public Trust." The beneficiaries are everyone in the school community of Philadelphia. Our schools and school system is not a business! It is a Public Trust and must be led and governend with that squarely before us.

Submitted by Audax (not verified) on October 5, 2011 7:10 pm

"It is the first time that you will see the School District, the state, and the city all coming together to create a vision and a plan for Philadelphia students,” said Williams.

What the hell has been going on for the past 10 years then? Are you saying that the District and its partners have done squat for the past 10 years and we should suddenly expect something different? From all accounts from people who know Mr. Williams, he's an intimidator, does not build consensus, and is very much in the mold of Dr. Ackerman in that he likes to blame the teachers.

I won't believe this is a new day for the District or the city, but instead more of the same. I sometimes question my decision to move back home to Philadelphia and days like this really make those questions much louder.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 5, 2011 7:50 pm

I know Williams and yes, he is a bully and anti teacher. He's really a know nothing and about 125 years old.

Submitted by Hope Moffett (not verified) on October 5, 2011 8:14 pm

I was told this but I want it confirmed. He has a long history of working with Foundations? Anyone know.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 5, 2011 7:19 pm

He is all of that and more. Kind of laughable but yes, very anti teacher.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 5, 2011 8:03 pm

Ed Williams and Foundations, YES!! YES!!! YES!!!!!. Please stick a fork in my eye.

Submitted by tom-104 on October 5, 2011 9:27 pm

The SRC meeting was basically a statement of business as usual. I attended and, while the tone was certainly different from the past, it was clear that the real business is still being conducted outside the meeting and the privatization agenda moves forward.

Some of the public speakers spoke the only truth at the meeting. One parent spoke movingly about her difficulties in getting busing for her two primary school children. A General Construction Mechanic spoke about what the impact of impending layoffs mean for his family and what it will mean for the schools. A teacher courageously spoke about the takeover of Audenreid by Universal and how poorly it has been managed, as well as the political circus we have been through in the last six months.

The SRC responded to the last two speakers with stoney silence and no comment.

Submitted by Namaste (not verified) on October 6, 2011 1:53 am

Regarding the layoffs: today there is a multitude of job listings posted on the school district's teacher Vacancy list. This is quite a wonderful sign, isn't it?

Also, for some reason that I can't fathom, the REAP site suddenly has more teacher openings than I've seen posted in a long, long time.

Does anybody know what's going on?

Submitted by gdgman3 on October 6, 2011 9:23 am

could this have something to do with all of the shifting taking place with "right to return"? I know a few teachers in my school are returning to their old schools on Tuesday.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 6, 2011 2:41 pm

I got called back to pick tomorrow, and I was 40th on the list recently

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 6, 2011 7:40 pm

I hope you get a good school. I also hope that you enjoy teaching again. My best wishes to you!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 6, 2011 10:12 pm

I resigned from my position. I was recalled the Friday before school started and placed into one of the schools that was on the list to become a Promise Academy. I was offered a position in private industry and given the current state of the district, I jumped at the opportunity. Plus, I figured my resigning result in someone else being recalled. I liked the school where I was working this year and would have gladly stayed had this opportunity not been presented. I wish all SDP employees the best this year.

Submitted by Old Hand (not verified) on October 7, 2011 8:22 am

Maybe not quite so wonderful. Take a good look at that Vacancy List. 33 of those job openings are classified "ES" - Emotional Support, which in my day were called "SED" - Severely Emotionally Disturbed" or "ED/BD" - Emotionally Disturbed/Behavioral Disorder". Interpretation: all the out-of-control kids that nobody can handle and nobody wants to deal with. Note how many "LS"- Learning Support kids - are also on the list. "LS" is the classification given to kids by savvy administrators who realize that precious few instructors are willing to helm a classroom full of kids labeled "ES". BE VERY CAREFUL WHAT YOU ACCEPT! Do I sound cynical? Well, maybe teaching Special Ed for 26 years does that to a person. Believe me, Special Ed is a field that systematically cannibalizes its young..Again, BE VERY CAREFUL!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 9, 2011 11:43 am

Strange, but I jumped at the chance to work with those kids. I didn't go into urban education to "be careful" about which students I would accept.

I was kind of appalled at the prevailing attitude at the pick session. People picked solely based on which school was "better" and easiest to drive to. Not whether it had good programs, a stable principal, a library, etc, but whether it had a parking lot and was in a good neighborhood.

It's no wonder so many of our schools are failing when most of the teachers don't want to work with most of the students.

Submitted by Concerned Philadelphian (not verified) on October 9, 2011 12:27 pm

While I agree some teachers pick schools for less than altruistic reasons, there are legitimate circumstances which influence picks. I would love to be at a particular school but as a single parent in Philly, I have to deal with transportation that a suburban parent does not have to consider (e.g. suburbans schools provide busing). So, I will have to consider location until my kids are grown. That said, a key factor is the principal, programs, etc. at the school.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 9, 2011 1:57 pm

I totally agree that there are a lot of factors that go into it. I also had some location considerations had I not gotten my first choice, such as being accessible by SEPTA. However, it was very one-track: What's the "best" school that's left? seemed to be the one and only concern for most.

I don't think it is altruism to consider working at schools that aren't the best. One person even resigned instead of going to any of the schools she considered bad. Why are we doing urban education if we feel this way about our students?

I get not being willing to work under a bad principal, or at a school that is over an hour away from where you live, or with huge class sizes. Those were not the primary concerns I heard from most people.

Submitted by Teach (not verified) on October 6, 2011 6:31 pm

Congratulations. Hope you enjoy your new school!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 9, 2011 9:18 am

Still closing schools...looks like the strategy to rid this district of small and responsive classes, a key to improving student achievement, is out the window. I thought Ackerman was asked to leave?

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