Kenney opposes Council resolution to set high bar for removing Board of Ed members
UPDATED 7:02 p.m. Adds comments from Darrell Clarke’s letter, clarifies that a whole new resolution was introduced, not an amendment to an existing resolution, and adds comments from Jannie Blackwell, Jim Engler and Sarah Peterson.
A City Council resolution opposed by Mayor Kenney was introduced Thursday that would establish a high bar for removing members of the new Board of Education, which will assume governance of the School District on July 1 from the state-dominated School Reform Commission.
Introduced by Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, with the backing of Council President Darrell Clarke, the resolution says that board members could be removed only “for cause.” That would replace the standard of “at the pleasure of the mayor” that was in effect before the SRC was installed in 2001, taking control of the District from the Board of Education.
The new bill signals a power struggle between Kenney and Council over the new school board. Kenney said he needs this authority so he can maintain accountability for the School District. Clarke says that the “for cause” provision will allow the board to maintain independence from the mayor and prevent board members “from being removed for purely political reasons.”
Sources in City Hall had expected the measure to be introduced by Clarke as an amendment to the bill that will transfer School District governance to the local board appointed by the mayor. It was instead introduced as a new bill for technical reasons relating to the title. The new bill will have to go to committee before a vote.
Blackwell said multiple amendments were consolidated into one bill at the request of the City Solicitor.
Jim Engler, deputy mayor for policy and legislation, said that staff in the Mayor’s Office had been in communication with Council over other proposed changes for months, but that they first heard about this change on Tuesday.
The Mayor’s Office opposes the change on the grounds that it breaks the chain of accountability between school board members and the voters — who don’t vote directly on school board candidates, but who do elect the mayor.
“The mayor stood up before Council in November and said that we needed to return to local control because we needed direct accountability,” Engler said. “That means through mayoral appointments to the board and the responsibility of those appointees to the mayor, we would have that accountability.”
Blackwell said she wanted Council to be more involved.
“The Mayor thought that he shouldn’t have to come to council people if he wanted to remove somebody,” Blackwell said. “I don’t see that there’s any problem. I think the administration and Council probably think the same way.”
Kenney sent a letter to City Council members, obtained by the Notebook from City Hall sources, that urged them to oppose the change.
For-cause removal, Kenney wrote, “will make it difficult or impossible to terminate Board members who have failed in their duties, acted unethically or abusively, or committed a crime.” He called the proposed change "deleterious."
In his letter, he cited the example of Pennsylvania Board of Education chairman Larry Wittig, who resigned in December after two women came forward to accuse him of sexual abuse decades earlier, when they were teenagers. Because Wittig served at the pleasure of the governor, he had the choice of either resigning or being dismissed.
“Had he been subject to for-cause removal, the Commonwealth, and his victims, could have been faced with the horror of a prolonged and adversarial termination,” the mayor wrote in his letter, noting that Wittig remains on his local school board.
Clarke fired off his own letter in response to Kenney’s.
Clarke said he hopes never to have to address such a situation, but that the Mayor outlined a “worst-case scenario,” which is “outweighed by the benefits of ensuring that Board Members can carry out their responsibilities bravely and honestly, without looking over their shoulders.”
Blackwell was dismissive of the scenario.
“If a person was convicted of a crime, and the Mayor wanted to remove them off the board I don’t think Council would disagree,” Blackwell said. “I think we generally think alike. I don’t know that we have that big an issue.”
She added that Council will likely meet to discuss the matter further on Tuesday.
In his letter, Clarke said the "for cause" requirement "will protect a BoardMember who publicly criticizes the Adminstration or council for inadequately funding the schools…who rejects pressure to approve or disapprove a particlar charter school application…who refuses to hire a particular person…it will allow Board Members to follow their consciences."
The new Board of Education will be appointed by Kenney, and a nominating panel is in the process of vetting candidates. At the end of the month, it will send him 27 names, from which he will choose nine people.
"Simply put, for-cause removal takes from the public something we owe them in abundance: Accountability. And it offers them nothing in return," Kenney wrote.
Kenney said he didn’t have a problem with two other proposed changes, one that would specify that City Council must confirm the mayor’s nominees, which had not been required in the past, and one that changes eligibility for the board from voters registered in Philadelphia to residents of Philadelphia.
If the bill is passed, the wording would appear in a charter-change ballot question that the public would decide in the May 18 primary. The changes regarding City Council confirmation would not take effect in time to affect the first nine nominees, but Council will have informal input into the final choices.
This morning is a first reading of the proposed changes; a final vote would occur later.
As for the nominating panel’s progress, Sarah Peterson, the spokeswoman for the Mayor’s Office of Education, said that it received applications from 458 individuals for positions on the new school board. The 13 members of the panel have been dividing into teams of three to interview candidates. Peterson said she had no information on how many people made it to the interview stage.
The panel must come up with its 27 names by Feb. 28, and the mayor can request an additional list if he is not satisfied with the choices.