This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
A state Senate Education Committee hearing on Joseph Dworetzky’s nomination to fill the vacant fifth seat on the School Reform Commission will finally take place in Harrisburg next Wednesday, June 24, nearly three months after the nomination, presumably paving the way for a full Senate vote.
However, Gov. Rendell has recalled his other nomination – of current commissioner Heidi Ramirez – to be on the panel.
The governor’s policy chief, Donna Cooper, said that this doesn’t mean her seat is endangered.
Instead, Cooper said, after submitting her name along with Dworetzky’s on March 30, the governor’s office decided that since the law permits Ramirez to continue to serve until the governor replaces her, it would be wise to concentrate on ensuring the approval of other nominees to posts.
Ramirez was originally named by the governor in the fall of 2007 to fill the unexpired term of former SRC chair James Nevels.
“It is true that on March 30th we submitted her name absent the necessary papers for nomination,” Cooper wrote the Notebook in an email. “We then realized, however, that we have many nominations we need to get through and since she continues to serve her name was pulled back so we could focus on getting the nominees who are either new or do not continue to serve in front of the Senate.”
The recall of Ramirez’s name as a nominee was confirmed by an aide to Senate Education Committee chairman Sen. Jeffrey Piccola. Sen. Anthony Williams, a minority member of the committee, also said in an interview that Ramirez’s name is not before the body for consideration.
Led by Parents United for Public Education, some education activists nervous about Ramirez’s status have launched a campaign affirming their support of her for a full term.
Cooper did not directly respond to the question of when or if Ramirez’s name would be resubmitted to the Senate.
The governor leaves office in January, 2011; the SRC term Ramirez would fill is for four years.
At the same time, there is no indication that Dworetzky’s nomination will face clear sailing in the Republican-controlled body.
An attorney and former city solicitor, he has been involved in two major lawsuits involving education – one that for sure doesn’t put him on the favored list of powerful state Republicans.
In 2005, he represented the State Department of Education under Rendell in its effort to oust the Republican-dominated Board of Control that was running the troubled Chester-Upland school district. The state accused the Board of Control, among other things, of running up massive debt while failing miserably to educate children. State Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, who is from Chester, was a major power behind the Board of Control members who were ultimately replaced.
Also, in 1996 Dworetzky represented the city against the state – then controlled by Republicans as well – during a major turning point in the long-running Philadelphia school desegregation case.
The case, which originated some 40 years ago, had changed by that time from a push for desegregation to focus on whether schools educating mostly students of color were adequately funded and who was responsible.
As city solicitor, Dworetzky argued that the state was responsible and had shirked its constitutional responsibility to provide a “thorough and efficient” education to all Pennsylvania’s children, particularly the predominantly Black and Latino student population in Philadelphia. The case was part of the bitter battle over the funding of city schools that marked the late 1990s, and it helped lead to the state takeover in 2001 under Republican governors Tom Ridge and Mark Schweiker.
Now, Rendell and the Senate Republicans are in contentious, partisan negotiations over the 2010 state budget and the specifics of possible budget cuts and tax increases – Rendell wants to temporarily raise the income tax. Since former Commissioner Jim Gallagher stepped down in January, there has been no Republican representation on the SRC. Both Dworetzky and Ramirez are Democrats.
As the most outspoken voice on the current SRC, Ramirez has publicly tangled several times with Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, who most recently scolded her this Wednesday during an SRC discussion about the closing of William Penn High School.
In April, during commission discussions of the superintendent’s Imagine 2014 blueprint for reforming the District, Sen. Williams made a fiery speech before the SRC urging commissioners to “get out of the way” and let Ackerman “lead.”
The Senate confirmation process can be interminable. For instance, nearly six months elapsed between Ramirez’s initial appointment and her confirmation, which did not occur until April, 2008. The body also tends to defer to home senators on nominations; if one or more disapproves, names can be held up indefinitely.
Dworetzky has been making the rounds in Harrisburg, an expected ritual of all nominees.
With his seat vacant, the SRC is operating with just four members, and three votes are needed for initiatives and resolutions to pass.
Sen. Williams would not comment on the suitability or qualifications of either Dworetzky or Ramirez, or whether he thinks it is important to fill the fifth seat expeditiously.
“It’s important that you fill the spots, but it’s also important that you fill the spots with the right people,” he said.