Is it time to abolish the School Reform Commission?
Lately, the topic has made its way from the parlor chatter of policy wonks to the eyes and ears of an education-minded public.
And state and city officials, too, have taken recent actions toward stripping control from the appointed five-member board that has presided over the School District of Philadelphia since the state took over more than a decade ago.
For nearly three hours Thursday night, the School Reform Commission listened to harsh and bitter criticism of its move last week to cancel its contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and unliaterally change health benefits for the union's 11,500 members.
Philadelphia students refused to attend classes at two District high schools Wednesday morning to express solidarity with their teachers, who students think have been mistreated by the School Reform Commission.
On Monday, the SRC unilaterally terminated the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers contract. With the agreement out of the way, the School District says teachers will now begin paying for a share of their health care premiums, a move they say will give classrooms an additional $44 million worth of resources this year.
In response to the District’s proposed budget cuts to subsidized public transportation, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia has created a guide for high school students who want to bike to school as an alternative.
Last school year, high school students who lived more than 1.5 miles from their schools were eligible to receive free SEPTA TransPasses. But in August the District made a proposal to increase the distance to two miles, making 7,500 high school students ineligible to receive the subsidy.
Hite said during the first School Reform Commission meeting of the new school year that the District is working with several partners to avoid the transportation cuts, but many students still need assistance.
There have been no meaningful teachers' contract negotiations all summer because District leaders have declined to schedule any talks, union leaders told several hundred members who came to a general membership meeting Tuesday.
Teachers are returning to school this week without a contract, facing bare-bones conditions in schools but still under pressure to agree to contract changes that would save the District about $30 million.
Flanked by four members of the School Reform Commission, Superintendent William Hite announced Friday morning that Philadelphia schools would open on time Sept. 8, but that another round of "difficult and hopefully temporary" cuts would be made to narrow the District's $81 million deficit.
Here are five key points about the School District's latest plan for dealing with its budget gap.
1. Temporary cuts and budget adjustments totaling $32 million were announced. These include discontinuing TransPasses for 7,500 high school students who live less than two miles from school, eliminating 300 slots in alternative programs for students at risk of dropping out, making 27 more elementary schools share police officers, reducing school cleaning and repairs, cutting extra professional development time at the District's Promise Academies, and eliminating some administrative positions. "These are cuts we want to treat as temporary," Hite said. "We want to restore them."
Lisa Haver, a retired teacher and a founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools (APPS), is a fixture at School Reform Commission meetings and a consistent advocate for transparency, adequate funding, and a strong union role in public education.
“Public schools must continue to be a civic enterprise where district policies and decisions are formulated in public forums,” says the APPS mission statement, “not a financial enterprise controlled by corporate interests."
As the head of the Philadelphia School Partnership, Mark Gleason sits at the heart of the school reform movement in Philadelphia.
PSP is the conduit for tens of millions in philanthropic dollars, which it deploys to support what it calls “the transformation, expansion and startup of high-performing schools.” It measures success by “the number of students in Philadelphia who move out of failing schools to better-quality school options.”
In one of the quieter School Reform Commission meetings in recent months, commissioners voted Thursday to revoke the charter of Mount Airy’s New Media Charter School, while renewing five-year charters for three other schools.
In its last regular meeting of the school year, it also took a series of other actions, including a vote to permanently close the former William Penn High School and sold it to Temple University for $15 million.
The School Reform Commission voted Thursday to grant a five-year renewal to New Foundations Charter School, but postponed a decision on two others.
It also gave a $93 million, three-year contract to Maramont Corp. for school lunch services, but only after extensive questioning of company representatives and the District's food service staff.