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Who’s on first?

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

I wondered, in the wake of Heidi Ramirez’ resignation, whether state law is at all unclear about the respective roles of the SRC and the superintendent.

The 2001 takeover law, quaintly entitled “Distress in school districts of the first class,” is actually a sledgehammer of a statute, designed to place broad powers in the hands of the newly-created SRC. (Inconveniently, the takeover law isn’t readily available on the web – in fact, none of Pennsylvania’s statutes are – but you can find it by going to a law library and asking to see 24 PS § 6-696, or by contacting me.)

Among other things, the law says flatly that the SRC shall be responsible for “the operation, management and educational program of the school district of the first class” — about as sweeping a provision as could be written.

And that’s only the beginning. The law goes on to say that the SRC’s duties encompass all those of the school board that it replaced. That’s a long list, including the authority to “define the general policies of the school system, … [t]o legislate upon all matters pertaining thereto, … [t]o determine and direct all expenditures for the maintenance and improvement of the school system,” and to appoint school district officers and “define their duties.” (Those provisions are found at 24 PS § 21-2103.)

In addition, the law lists a great many new duties and powers for the SRC, including the power to “reallocate resources [and] amend school procedures,” to employ and suspend employees, and to “supervise and direct principals, teachers and administrators.” (That’s pretty remarkable: the SRC, for better or worse, actually has the power to supervise lower-level employees – not just the top brass.) And I’ve left out a lot more SRC powers and duties, including provisions concerning charter schools, the hiring of consultants and managers, the negotiation of union contracts, and more.

Finally, the law speaks to the relationship between the school board (now the SRC) and the superintendent of schools and any assistants. These officials “shall be responsible to the board [now SRC] for the conduct of their respective departments, … and shall from time to time submit such plans and suggestions for the improvement of the schools and the school system as they shall deem expedient or as the board of public education may require.” (§ 21-2104; my emphasis.)

In short, the legislators who wrote the takeover law back in 2001 had in mind a strong, independent SRC – even more powerful than an “ordinary” school board.

Given that, there’s no room to question whether an SRC member should make every effort to become informed about District plans and activities – or to ask the questions (and even “require” the answers) that are necessary in order to make her own judgments about them. On the contrary, it would be improper for an SRC member not to do that.

Reasonable people can differ over whether the SRC arrangement still suits our needs, but our elected officials, from governor on down, have continued to argue that we’re not ready for a change. Until that change comes, the SRC is in charge, and is required to be a team of active, independent thinkers, questioners, and decision-makers. Whether that has been the reality is another question. But we definitely don’t need Abbott and Costello to tell us who’s on first.

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