August 19 — 11:30 am, 2009

Upheaval at the SRC: Ramirez to step down

hramirez 1 Photo: Harvey Finkle

Sources inside and outside the District have informed me that School Reform Commissioner Heidi Ramirez will announce her intention to resign from the SRC. The announcement is expected this afternoon when the SRC convenes.

The announcement follows months of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s public critiques and complaints about Ramirez’s inquiries into areas such as the budget and contracts.  It also follows Gov. Rendell’s decision in the spring to put Ramirez’s re-nomination in limbo and open angling by Harrisburg legislators to get Republican representation on the SRC. One can only guess that Ramirez, whom Governor Rendell once praised as “the most qualified” member of the SRC for her education background, got little backing from state or city officials.

And that bodes poorly for future oversight of the District.

NOTE: Look for news updates here throughout the day. The Inquirer has additional reporting. And in Spanish in Al Día by reporter Milena Velis.

3:10 p.m. District spokesperson confirms Commissioner Ramirez will resign soon during today’s SRC meeting.

6 p.m. Fighting back tears, Heidi Ramirez resigns, saying her educational vision is now "inconsistent" with that of the District. Superintendent Arlene Ackerman notably waited to be the last person to stand in acknowledging Commissioner Ramirez and rolled her eyes before standing. Read her resignation letter and  the text of her public statement.

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Since the departure of former chair Sandra Dungee Glenn, Commissioner Ramirez has been the most publicly engaged member of the SRC, and despite criticisms from the superintendent, has earned public appreciation for her respectful manner toward speakers at SRC meetings, her frequent involvement in community events and affirmation of community participation, as well as her efforts to make the SRC a more engaged and publicly accountable body.

More important, though, was her interest in taking her public role seriously. She tackled critical and often overlooked issues such as teacher efficacy and retention, emphasized the importance of boosting basic school budgets, and consistently inquired about data backing up decisions. On a board where her colleagues often sat through entire meetings without raising a single public question on millions of dollars of contracts, heart-wrenching public testimony, or announcements of major changes in policy, Commissioner Ramirez stood out as someone who wanted the District to publicly explain the rationale for large contracts, major policy shifts, and budget alignment.  

Her inquiries were often met with open hostility from Superintendent Ackerman, whose criticisms became noteworthy enough for their own coverage in the press.  The superintendent balked at Commissioner Ramirez’ inquiries and concerns on issues as varied as data background on Teach for America, contracts for the as yet undefined Renaissance Schools plan, budgeting for the Superintendent’s Imagine 2014 strategic plan, and the wholesale renewal of all the Education Management Organizations (EMOs).

Meanwhile, wavering support from city and state leadership has been notable, though not widely reported. The Notebook reported in June that Gov. Rendell, who had announced the re-nomination of Ramirez to a full term in March, had, in fact, withdrawn Dr. Ramirez’ re-nomination. The Notebook also reported on the legislative politicking behind SRC appointments, particularly regarding Republican representation. It certainly doesn’t appear that Commissioner Ramirez got any support from the city either for doing her job of asking questions. Mayor Nutter’s only appearance before the SRC this spring was to tell the SRC to vote in favor of the superintendent’s Imagine 2014 strategic plan.

So it leads you to wonder: Was the Commission’s most vocal member – arguably its most expert and engaged member – forced out for asking too many questions and asking for a modicum of accountability from District leadership?  And if so, what does that mean for the future of our schools and $3 billion of public money. If asking questions isn’t the job of an oversight body, then what is?

The irony of course is significant.

In November 2007, Governor Rendell heralded Commissioner Ramirez as the “most qualified” member of the SRC in terms of education background, and Mayor Nutter praised Commissioner Ramirez for her “wealth of experience in the research and implementation of urban education policy.”  No other Commissioner has matched her educational background (although Commissioner Irizarry also has a distinguished background in public school and community based education programs). The unexpected thing, apparently, was that she used her knowledge and wealth of experience to ask questions and clarify long-standing concerns in the District.

So if asking basic questions gets you a dressing down from the school chief you’re supposed to oversee and education background is irrelevant, are we then to assume that “no questions asked” is the preferred governance model of this district?

After all, it’s only been a few years since an asleep-at-the-wheel SRC woke up to the fact that a particularly willful CEO had effectively bankrupted the District. In the months following, we saw dramatic changes in leadership style at the District and SRC, and plenty of promises made to outraged parents and staff. For a while, it felt like the District was on a positive and responsive course. But it hasn’t taken long for public amnesia to settle in, and for business as usual to return to District politics.

Once again we have a particularly willful superintendent and we have an SRC that – Ramirez aside – behaves in public meetings like their charge is to not make waves and to ask few questions. And all this while the usual political jockeying and spending of $3.2 billion of public money makes its way around the system.

The loss of Heidi Ramirez – whether she was forced out or not – is a grave loss to the system and a serious step backward for public trust and public accountability. As we move forward, the question for the governor, the mayor, and the public is whether the SRC will be a board with five rubber stamps or whether it will be a board that plays the essential role of holding the system and its $3.2 billion budget accountable.

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