Kenney administration is moving to set up transition from SRC to local control
UPDATED Oct. 25 10 a.m. with a new statement from Jeff Hornstein
The Kenney administration is actively seeking suggestions from various education stakeholders in the city, including "friends of" school groups, for people to serve on a 13-member nominating committee that will vet potential Board of Education members as the movement toward local control for the Philadelphia School District picks up steam.
An email from Jeff Hornstein, chair of the Philadelphia Crosstown Coalition, which convenes the umbrella group Friends of Neighborhood Education (FONE), to colleagues around the city confirms a planned timeline for dissolving the School Reform Commission before the beginning of the next school year in September and installing a local Board of Education to take over governance of the District. The Notebook obtained a copy of the email.
If the SRC is dissolved, governance of the District will revert to what it was before the state took over city schools in 2001, which was a nine-member Board of Education appointed by the mayor.
At the Nov. 2 City Council meeting, City Hall sources said, a resolution will be offered to amend the city charter to require Council approval of any mayoral appointees to a new school board. Under the current charter, Council approval is not required for school board nominees. Changing the charter would also require voters’ approval of a ballot question; an election could be held in the spring.
The SRC is expected to consider, and approve, a resolution to begin the process of dissolution at its next meeting, on Nov. 16.
The Pennsylvania Secretary of Education, currently Pedro Rivera, would have to approve the action by the end of this year in order for a new Board of Education to be in power before the next gubernatorial election — hedging against fears that a Republican governor hostile to Philadelphia’s interests and to increased education spending may defeat Gov. Wolf.
Under the city charter, a 13-member nominating committee must present three names for each of nine openings on a mayorally appointed Board of Education. Such a committee would be formed after the dissolution of the SRC.
At Thursday’s SRC meeting, members heard a presentation from Acting General Counsel Miles Shore on the legal implications and various deadlines in effect should the SRC decide to start the process of its own dissolution. It was the first indication that the beleaguered body was seriously considering such a move after months of often-caustic calls from advocates at its increasingly testy meetings.
Based on the five commissioners’ past statements, it seems that at least three SRC members are willing to vote in favor of a resolution starting the transition to local control — Chair Joyce Wilkerson and Commissioners Chris McGinley and Estelle Richman.
The email from Hornstein asks members of the "friends of" groups – community organizations that come together in support of various neighborhood schools – to also write letters or op-ed pieces in support of local control of the School District and to attend the Nov. 16 SRC meeting to speak in favor.
On Nov. 17, the city’s chief education officer, Otis Hackney, will attend a FONE meeting so that members can "give him direct feedback on what we think local control ought to look like," according to the email, although his office said only that he had been invited. Hornstein’s email also said that he was "told directly" that there would be at least one representative of FONE on both the nominating committee and the board, but City Hall sources said there were no such commitments.
UPDATE: Hornstein sent out an amended email Thursday morning saying: "I misstated that we got assurances that FONE would have a seat on both the nominating panel and the school board. No such as assurances were made and my email mischaracterized that position…We are among many stakeholders that were asked to submit names."
Kenney spokeswoman Lauren Hitt confirmed that "the administration has reached out to a number of different stakeholders to get their thoughts and opinions on the future of the District — both its governance and impending billion-dollar deficit."
She added, "While we absolutely value the input of neighborhood groups, they are just one of many different groups and communities we are consulting."
The city charter, which was passed more than a half-century ago during a period of reform, called for Board of Education members to serve staggered terms as a "good government" move so that no individual mayor could exert full political control over the body. By the 1990s, the consensus was that this system had outlived its usefulness, causing an accountability vacuum because no city officials felt directly responsible for the schools.
Under Mayor John Street, the charter was changed so that the mayor appointed school board members to terms that matched the mayor’s own. But that lasted only one year before the state declared Philadelphia academically and fiscally distressed and passed legislation disbanding the board and installing a five-member School Reform Commission, with three members appointed by the governor and two by the mayor.
Neither the SRC nor the Board of Education has taxing power of its own. Both must rely on the city, state, and federal governments to raise revenue and allocate it to the District. Among other criticisms of this arrangement, SRC member Farah Jimenez has called this an "allowance" system that hampers governance because the body that decides what the District needs to spend has no control over raising the revenue for it.
But the timeline and process now under consideration would not lead to an elected board with its own taxing power, at least not right away.
Hite has said that Kenney has been gathering information on various scenarios as he focuses on the best way to make sure the District stays solvent and is able to meet all students’ needs while improving outcomes.
In the 499 other school districts in the state, a locally elected school board can raise its own revenue. Under state law, an appointed body cannot impose taxes.
Now, the state contributes just over half the District’s revenue and the city picks up most of the rest, primarily by allocating to the District 55 percent of the local property tax.
Over the last four or five years, City Council has stepped up to increase its share of the District’s revenue both through dedicated funding streams like the 1-cent hike in the sales tax and cash infusions. As a result, the city’s contribution to the District has increased annually during a time when Harrisburg, with Democratic Gov. Wolf and the Republican leadership continually at odds, has not increased state education dollars enough to keep up with the District’s needs.
The General Assembly adopted an education funding formula last year that would, for the first time in a generation, directly tie state school aid to actual enrollment and various measures of need and poverty in each district. But it is only applying the formula to new aid, now about 6 percent of the total, not to the entire pot.
If the new formula were applied to the entire $6 billion in basic education aid, Philadelphia’s share would jump more than $300 million – from $1.067 billion ($5,246 per pupil) to $1.388 billion ($6,827 per pupil) – enough to stave off a looming deficit of more than $900 million anticipated by 2019. That is the shortfall that is preoccupying Mayor Kenney.
Last month, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments in a long-standing school funding case brought by several school districts and parents that could overhaul the state’s school funding system. In previous school funding lawsuits in Pennsylvania, the courts declined to address the equity and adequacy issues, ruling that they lacked jurisdiction to interfere in what was a political and legislative matter.