Willing to listen
The new-look School Reform Commission says it wants to win the public's trust.
by Benjamin Herold
For the first time in recent memory, Patrice Berrian-Marrujo felt that somebody in power was listening to her.
A classroom assistant for students with severe emotional problems at Levering Elementary in Roxborough, Berrian-Marrujo describes herself as a "low-level employee" in the School District of Philadelphia.
But she is passionate about her work, and she is concerned about what the District's recent proposal to close Levering will mean for her students. So on a crisp November Saturday, she joined roughly 100 other parents, students, and teachers at a community meeting at Roxborough High School to discuss the District's plans.
To her surprise, a member of Philadelphia's School Reform Commission was not only there, but spoke publicly.
"You live this, so your suggestions mean an enormous amount," Commissioner Lorene Cary told the crowd, many of whom voiced concerns about the District's school closings plan. "We are here as an SRC to encourage the District to listen."
After the meeting ended, Berrian-Marrujo approached the commissioner, tears in her eyes.
"When you spoke, I felt sincerity," she told Cary, a celebrated local author who runs a community-based arts organization. "I felt that you really are going to take this into consideration."
If Berrian-Marrujo's hopes are realized, it would represent a sea change for the beleaguered SRC.
Local advocates have long criticized the District's governing board for being unresponsive to the public. Discontent grew during the first nine months of this year, when the commission endured a disastrous stretch marked by missteps and scandal.
This September, in the wake of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman's $900,000 buyout, the criticism reached a crescendo. The city's chief integrity officer issued a report blasting former SRC Chair Robert Archie for his involvement in backroom dealing on a potentially lucrative charter contract. Mayor Michael Nutter led an effort to clean house.
In the space of a month, Archie and two other commissioners resigned. Four new members – Cary, Rutgers-Camden Chancellor Wendell Pritchett, lawyer Pedro Ramos, and former William Penn Foundation President Feather Houstoun – are joining lone holdover Joseph Dworetzky on the rebuilt SRC.
The new commissioners say they are committed to restoring public confidence in the SRC's integrity and decision-making.
Many remain skeptical.
"You just have to sit with the very uncomfortable fact that folks don't trust you, and behave well anyway," she said.
Even if times were good, serving on the SRC would be a daunting responsibility.
Created when the state took over the Philadelphia school system in late 2001, the five-member, city-state governing board oversees the District's nearly $3 billion budget – the third-largest pot of public money in the state. Its members are volunteers, but in these unpaid second jobs they are asked to make decisions that will affect hundreds of thousands of families.
And these are not good times.
At the top of a long list of challenges is the District's disastrous budget situation. The SRC must still approve painful measures to finish closing a stunning $629 million hole for this year, then quickly turn around and prepare for what could be another large shortfall next year.
It's no surprise, then, that Pritchett says he has been asked the same question a hundred times since joining the commission in September.
Why take the job?
"The first person to ask was my wife," said the 46-year-old Philadelphia native. "She was worried about the perceptions of the SRC and about the difficult decisions that were going to need to be made."
Interacting with the public
No issue will be tougher for the SRC to navigate than the District's facilities master plan.
On November 2, after a year of development, District staff recommended that the commission approve a plan to close nine schools over the next three years.
Supporters at many of the targeted schools, including Levering, are angry. But some of the city's political and business leaders expected a more ambitious list of closings.
It's exactly the kind of no-win situation that Pritchett's wife was concerned about. But he says it's also an opportunity.
"We're looking at [the facilities master plan] as a model, a way of thinking about how we interact with the public and with stakeholders," said Pritchett.
Already, the SRC has started to make noticeable changes.
Cary's presence at the community meeting in Roxborough will not be an isolated event, say the commissioners. In a letter from the SRC directly to parents, the commissioners say they will "attend as many meetings as possible" and promise to listen to "families' concerns, thoughts, and suggestions about their own neighborhoods."
New SRC chair Pedro Ramos wasted no time in shifting how the SRC conducts its business.
Ramos promptly announced he intends to create new committees on topics like finances, safety, charter schools, and higher education. Non-commissioners may be invited to join.