This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
by Benjamin Herold
for The Notebook and WHYY/NewsWorks
Over the course of five remarkable days last week, Philadelphia’s recently overhauled School Reform Commission set out to show that it’s serious about becoming more transparent.
In addition to granting a Notebook/NewsWorks reporter and photographer unprecedented access to one of the commission’s executive sessions and releasing a collection of confidential documents, new interim SRC Chair Wendell Pritchett agreed to a request for an extensive sit-down interview, his first as a commissioner.
The interview took place with reporter Benjamin Herold on November 1 at District headquarters. For almost an hour, Pritchett talked about his nomination to the SRC, the District’s new facilities master plan, and issues related to ethics and public accountability.
Below are excerpts of the conversation.
Herold: This must be something of a whirlwind for you.
Pritchett: It certainly has been. There’s a lot of information to understand.
I think my first role was to understand the fiduciary responsibilities. And they involve supervising the acting superintendent and understanding the budget and the financial situation and operations of the institution.
But there is another aspect to this. The SRC, I think, should be the voice … for promoting positive educational outcomes for children in the city of Philadelphia. And in that role, there are lots of people who have ideas, lots of people who have suggestions.
And there are lots of people who want to engage. That is, I think, the bigger challenge, figuring out how to manage that. … I’m just starting to get an approach to that.
Herold: You’re coming into a situation where right off the bat, you have to deal with a budget mess and school closings. Why say yes to the job?
Pritchett: You’re not the first person to ask that question. The first person was my wife.
The flip answer is, the mayor asked me to do it. I was born in this city, I grew up in this city, and my parents worked for the School District. … There is just nothing more important than this issue of public education.
In the end, I think my position was life is short, and if you’re asked to do things, you should step up.
Herold: Was it a condition of your appointment that you accepted that the facilities master plan was going to happen along the timeframe District staff had already laid out?
Herold: Are there any scenarios under which you could see yourself saying this is not the right time to close schools, or we need to re-start this process?
Pritchett: I think that’s unlikely, but it’s possible.
I do, at this point, feel comfortable with the process. I feel comfortable with the idea that decisions need to be made and that those decisions are in the interest of the kids in the Philadelphia schools. And so I expect that we will be moving forward with it.
Herold: The Pew Charitable Trusts recently released a report finding that other cities that closed schools didn’t end up saving significant money and often contributed to neighborhood blight. Why do this now?
Pritchett: One, I have to disagree. In one case, [another district saved] $7 million, and in another case it was $13 million. That’s nothing to sneeze at.
As you know, we still have a budget challenge for next year. Among the cuts [we’ve had to make] were some programs that are near and dear to me, like music education … [$13 million] gets you a lot of music educators.
I also think that we have a school district that has 50,000 students fewer than it had a decade ago. It has 100,000 students fewer than it had two decades ago. And we have to think about strategically reorganizing it. We have to do that.
Herold: How are you going to go about making a decision on whether to approve the District’s facilities recommendations?
Pritchett: Well, I’m a lawyer, and you know lawyers spend a lot of time on process … it’s crucial in large organizations. I’m mostly going to be concerned about the process: Did they follow the process we laid out? Was the appropriate information gathered? Is there outreach to the appropriate stakeholders? Have they been able to get their views expressed? Has there been follow up from the staff to concerns that are raised?
It is a big deal. People are going to be upset. I don’t like making decisions that are going to make people upset. However, that’s part of the job.
Herold: What have your interactions with elected officials been like so far?
Pritchett: I don’t think I’ve talked to any elected officials other than the mayor.
Going into the job, that was a conscious decision on my part, to not engage. I tried to create a situation where it would be hard for them to reach out to me because I thought it was important that I first focus on getting to know the School District and other commissioners and getting a sense of what the mayor was hoping to do.
Herold: What’s the appropriate role in this facilities process for elected officials?
Pritchett: They certainly have a large, appropriate role. They’re elected to represent their constituents … and they should be part of the decision-making process. The commission is still struggling with exactly what rules of engagement we want to have with elected officials.
Some of the things that are in the air are: Should we have a log that says any time that any commissioner is contacted by a legislator? Should it be public? I would appreciate advice and thoughts from your readers.
I tend to have a fairly broad idea about what should be public. But I do acknowledge that there are some things that are not fully appropriately public. So, we’re having that discussion right now.
Obviously, we need to make some decisions pretty quickly.
Herold: Is Joan Markman’s report [on King High School] influencing your thinking on this?
[Two weeks ago], as we stated in public session, she and the city solicitor did meet with [the SRC] in executive session, and they did give their thoughts about that episode. And we asked them some clarifying questions about what was in the report. And we also asked them for their advice about what are appropriate ways for the commission to interact with legislators.
And [Markman] had some broad ideas, but we also agreed that we would have further conversations about it.
Her broad ideas were things like documenting interactions with legislators, figuring out ways to communicate those interactions to the public, making sure that the public statements jibe with the private conversations, those kinds of things.
We will be doing more thought as a commission into what are some ways we might change our operating procedures.
Herold: It sounds like in your capacity as a public servant, you were requesting information that’s of public interest. Should that kind of discussion happen publicly?
Pritchett: Yes. That’s the short answer to your question.
I will confess to you that we didn’t have a robust discussion about whether Joan Markman and Shelley Smith should come to executive session or public session. To be honest with you, the reason the decision was made was because we had a fairly full public session, and we had time in the executive session.
I can’t think of anything they told us in that session that I would feel uncomfortable with them telling us in a public session.
I do think the default should be that the discussion happens in a public session. … Being a $3 billion organization, there are a fair number of exceptions. But the rule should be that it happens in a public session.
Herold: What will the timeline and process be for you and your fellow commissioners making these decisions about how the SRC does business moving forward?
Pritchett: It has to happen rapidly.
It really is a frustration that we don’t have the full complement [of five commissioners] yet. It is inappropriate, or at least difficult, to make those decisions until we have all five commissioners. I really would like us all, five of us, to agree this is how we’re going to operate going forward.