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SRC: Serious about transparency

Photo: Benjamin Herold

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

[Updated 12/22 with correction on Bill Green] The new School Reform Commission is intent on demonstrating that it’s serious about transparency – even on relatively arcane matters.

In addition to hearing public testimony about the impact of budget cuts and proposed school closings, the SRC dedicated a significant chunk of its nearly four-hour December action meeting to publicly deliberating a proposed resolution that would have affected employee retirement plans. At one point during the lengthy and often confusing discussion, Commissioner Wendell Pritchett interjected. “One of the things we’ve talked a lot about is transparency,” said Pritchett. “This is a messy process. … This is how we discuss things in public.” Ultimately, the SRC asked the District to withdraw the resolution in question, which called for reducing the District’s list of approved providers of 403(b) retirement plans for employees from five to two. The proposed change would have compelled an estimated 8,500 employees to switch to a new manager for their retirement plans. Both Rob McGrogan, head of the principals’ union, and George Ricchezza, head of the District’s largest blue-collar union, expressed displeasure with the timing and gist of the proposed change to the administration of their members’ retirement plans. “This is going to cause an unnecessary distraction,” said McGrogan. “There are so many changes going on the District right now. … Let this be for another time.” A spokesperson for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers told the Notebook/NewsWorks that the teachers’ union “has not agreed to any changes to 403(b) providers.” After extensive public testimony from opponents of the proposed change, commissioners sought clarification from the District staff who developed the proposal. Ultimately, SRC Chair Pedro Ramos asked District staff to provide a more detailed rationale for the changes and resubmit the resolution at a future meeting, noting that “four of the five of us are new.” Other highlights from the meeting included: – A rousing piece of theater by more than a dozen students from E.M. Stanton Elementary in South Philadelphia, one of nine schools the District has targeted for closure. Following the lead of 8th grader Ruja Ballard, students scattered throughout the auditorium helped deliver Shakespeare’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy, from Hamlet to express their concern over their school’s uncertain future. Stanton drama teacher and Bryn Mawr College professor Catharine Slusar, who leads a once-a-month Shakespeare performance class at the school, followed by describing to the commission Stanton’s vibrant arts program and disputing the District’s closure recommendation. “Shouldn’t we be holding our successes up with both hands?” Slusar asked. “We need 20 more E.M. Stantons, not one less.” District officials said there is still no timeline for a formal hearing to consider their school closings plan. Ninety days notice is required by state law between such a hearing and the final vote by the SRC to act on a school closing. -Councilman-at-Large and prospective announced 2015 mayoral candidate Bill Green called for radical changes in how Philadelphia public schools are governed and released a policy paper outlining his plans. “The District is too big to succeed,” Green said, maintaining that policymakers have made the mistake of thinking that the existing bureaucratic system must be kept in place because of its size.
In the paper, Green advocates putting failing schools statewide under the authority of a “Pennsylvania Recovery School District” modeled on the district created to oversee schools in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. He also urges restoration of local, mayoral control over successful traditional public schools. “The ugly truth is that Philadelphia as a city is not sustainable if we continue [improvemnt] at this snail’s pace,” said Green. -The commission oversaw the swearing in of the recently elected executive team for the District’s Citywide Student Government. Announced goals of the team include increasing the number of college-bound students, increasing the number of school-based clubs, and improving teacher-student relations. The new leaders, and their schools, include:

  • President Chloe Richardson, Northeast
  • Vice President Addie Weyrich, Masterman
  • Secretary Devon Daniel, Northeast
  • Assistant Secretary Lawrence Caulk, Roxborough
  • Treasurer William Surrell, W.B. Saul
  • Parliamentarian Brandon Rose, Central

-The commission approved a new meeting schedule, shifting all its meetings in the first half of 2012 to 5:30 or 6 pm. The next SRC meetings will be Tuesday, January 17 and Thursday, January 19. The commission will attempt to compress most of its formal business into one meeting per month, while the first meeting each month will focus on strategic issues, policy, and priorities and will be structured in a "more collaborative format," Chair Ramos said. “We have yet to even figure out the shape of the table. My guess is that we will have a very different format than what we have here." Newly constituted SRC committees will begin meeting in January, Ramos said, with a January 17 meeting scheduled on school safety. -For the second month in a row, the commission failed to approve a “ratification” resolution which would have retroactively authorized a contract for a $1,050 printing job that the District ordered in February without prior SRC approval. The vote backed the stance of Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky, who has argued for months that District staff must do away with the practice of asking the SRC to ratify obligations that have already been incurred. Several other ratification resolutions were approved, apparently because there were mitigating circumstances for the delay in their introduction. -After hearing testimony that school nurses are vital to addressing the substantial health challenges facing the student population in Philadelphia, officials said they are still moving forward on plans to lay off nurses but have not yet finalized a new deployment plan. Layoff notices have not yet gone out. In a departure from long-standing practice, commissioners for the second meeting in a row heard public testimony prior to considering resolutions. Wednesday’s proceedings were broadcast live on the District’s cable station, PSTV 52. The meeting was also streamed live online. Notebook/NewsWorks reporter Benjamin Herold also contributed to this story. Listen to Benjamin Herold’s radio report for WHYY.

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