by Benjamin Herold
for the Notebook and WHYY/NewsWorks
[Updated 12/9 with clarification on Girard-diCarlo resignation]
In recent years, it became commonplace for advocates and editorial boards to accuse Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission of being a rubber stamp.
If only rubber stamps were so reliable.
According to a Notebook/NewsWorks review of more than 1,500 SRC votes between October 2009 and August 2011, the recent iteration of the School District’s powerful five-member city-state governing board voted unanimously in favor of a whopping 98 percent of the resolutions that came before it for a vote. Only seven resolutions that came up for a vote failed to pass.
In separate interviews, former Chairman Robert Archie and former Commissioner David Girard-diCarlo defended the SRC's voting patterns as the natural outgrowth of a board that, by design, did much of its work out of the public view.
Such a high degree of unanimity is rare on school boards, said experts consulted by the Notebook/NewsWorks. Broad consensus can indicate the board is functioning smoothly, they said, but it becomes a problem when an accompanying lack of transparency gives the appearance that important decisions are being made behind closed doors.
“It’s extremely unusual to have 98 percent unanimity,” said Richard Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. “It sounds like public is being [told about] the decisions after the fact.”
The Notebook/NewsWorks analysis of the SRC’s actual voting patterns was based on review of dozens of “vote cards” covering the period from April 2009, when former Chairman Robert Archie took his seat, until August 2011, when the commission was radically overhauled. The District provided the cards following a Notebook/NewsWorks request.
Reached by phone, Archie said the commission’s voting patterns under his watch were a function of how the SRC operated, even before his tenure began.
In the weeks after resolutions were first introduced, he said, the commissioners had multiple opportunities – usually in private – to raise any concerns and have their questions answered. Archie cited the commission’s closed-door executive sessions and committee meetings as two main venues where such weighing of resolutions occurred.
“The procedure that was followed was that [District staff] would make a presentation to the SRC during executive session [highlighting] pros and cons,” said Archie. “Any questions you might have as a commissioner would be directed back to our chief of staff or to the appropriate [District] staff member.”
By the time the commissioners were asked to publicly cast their votes, he said, “any hesitation was resolved.”
The voting record of the former SRC – mayoral appointees Archie and Johnny Irizarry and gubernatorial appointees David Girard-diCarlo, Denise McGregor Armbrister, and Joseph Dworetzky – certainly reflects the former chairman’s explanation.
During his 28 months on the commission, for example, Archie voted “no” only twice – both times on procedural issues.
That was twice more than former commissioner David Girard-diCarlo, who never once voted “no” during his 22 months on the SRC – despite telling Pennsylvania senators during his confirmation hearing in 2009 that “I have never been a rubber stamp and I don’t think I will ever be a rubber stamp.”
In an interview, Girard-diCarlo called the commission’s voting patterns during his tenure “not at all surprising."
The SRC’s twice-monthly meeting structure is “not designed to be a public vetting of disagreements,” he said.
“The only vote that I regret not having voted 'no' on was [approving] the [District’s] budget in 2010,” he said. Despite issuing dire warnings about a coming “financial tsunami,” Girard-diCarlo voted in favor of the budget in May 2010. He resigned
shortly afterwards in February 2011, citing a busy travel schedule, just days before the District finally acknowledged the magnitude of the budget gap.
"I did as best as I could and then resigned," said Girard-diCarlo. "My resignation should speak volumes."
Joseph Dworetzky, the lone holdover from the old SRC, was the most likely commissioner to go against the grain, voting “no” 19 times between October 2009 and August 2011.
The vote cards also show that Archie never missed a voting meeting during his tenure. He did, however, have to recuse himself from voting more than two dozen times – roughly three times as frequently as his colleagues.
Like Archie, commissioner Irizarry also had perfect attendance. Dworetzky was present for 89 percent of voting meetings.
McGregor Armbrister, on the other hand, was only present for 77 percent of the voting meetings between October 2009 and August 2011.
Rubber stamp or common vision?
A high degree of consensus with little dissent can actually be a sign of a highly functioning school board, said Stuart Knade, the general counsel for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.
“One person’s rubber stamp is another person’s common vision,” he said.
Many of the matters that come before school boards are routine and by nature should not be controversial, said Knade. Some more divisive issues might also never make it up for formal consideration.
During the period analyzed by the Notebook/NewsWorks, over 100 resolutions were not voted on after being listed as “withdrawn by staff.”
But boards that frequently cast unanimous votes without holding meaningful public discussions risk creating the appearance of impropriety, said Knade.
“People like to see the deliberative process in action,” he said.
Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act legally requires public agencies like the SRC to conduct any formal deliberations by a quorum of their members in public.
A recent Notebook/NewsWorks review of three years’ worth of meeting agendas from SRC executive sessions, however, showed that the commissioners have regularly scheduled closed-door time on important topics ranging from bond issues to charter renewals.
More troubling, a Notebook/NewsWorks investigation earlier this year revealed that Archie participated in a closed-door meeting about redirecting a potentially lucrative charter contract – after recusing himself from the public vote on the matter due to a conflict of interest. The revelations helped prompt a scathing report from the city’s chief integrity officer that blasted Archie for his behind-the-scenes involvement on the issue.
The fallout from that incident helped prompt a massive house-cleaning effort on the commission. Archie, Irizarry, and McGregor Armbrister all resigned earlier this fall.
Need for transparency
The SRC’s new members say they understand the need for greater transparency.
“The default should be that discussion happens in a public meeting,” said Wendell Pritchett, who was appointed by Mayor Nutter to serve the remainder of Archie’s term
To demonstrate they are serious about change, the new commissioners granted a Notebook/NewsWorks reporter unprecedented access to one of its executive sessions. New chairman Pedro Ramos has also moved to make its public meetings more interactive and less scripted.
Knade of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association described the recent changes by the SRC as “very healthy.”
He cautioned, however, that dissent on a school board is not necessarily productive.
Often, said Knade, school boards are beset by members who regularly hold up what should be routine business for ideological, personal, or political reasons. Virtually all boards of education in Pennsylvania outside Philadelphia are elected.
“Frequently, boards that tend to vote unanimously on most things are seen as healthy, stable boards with a good sense of their role and a high level of trust in the [district] administration,” said Knade.
Notebook interns Avi Wolfman-Arent and Will Treece contributed reporting for this article.