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SRC responds to mayor, will negotiate agreement

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

Responding to Mayor Nutter’s nine-page letter sent over the weekend demanding unprecedented access to the District’s books and personnel, the School Reform Commission voted Wednesday to negotiate an "educational accountability agreement" with the mayor.

"The city is one of our most major funding partners and we want to do everything that we can to assure the city that the District will cooperate with it," said Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky, who introduced the resolution authorizing the move during Wednesday’s SRC meeting. "I think we welcome the involvement of the city."

The mayor had called upon the SRC to come up with such an agreement by this Thursday, June 9.

The mayor’s top education advisor, Lori Shorr, applauded the SRC’s action. "They took a positive vote today and that’s great," she said. "We’ve been working closely with the District for years, and I think this is just a new step in the relationship."

Shorr said that in advocating for the District’s needs, the mayor kept hearing about accountability. "He wanted to … take an excuse off the table of why people don’t want to fund the District," she said.

The resolution, which passed unanimously with no discussion, says that the District, through the SRC chair, will:

  • "negotiate an Educational Accountability Agreement in a form satisfactory to the Chairman, the Chief Executive Officer, and General Counsel, subject to final approval by the chairman;" and
  • "execute, deliver and perform an Educational Accountability Agreement with the City of Philadelphia, in order to establish enhanced fiscal and other reporting, liaison, and mutual coordination and support between the parties."

Dworetzky said that the actual written agreement detailing what the District will make available must still be prepared. Nutter had set a Thursday deadline, and Dworetzky said he expected it would be met.

Nutter’s letter was prepared after Superintendent Arlene Ackerman surprised him with an announcement Friday that she had found a way to save full-day kindergarten by redirecting federal Title I dollars — after Nutter had said he would work to raise additional funds for that purpose.

Full-day kindergarten was the most prominent of several high-profile programs the District slashed to close a $629 million budget gap. The District also handed layoff notices this week to some 3,800 employees, including more than 1,500 teachers. The teacher layoffs are on hold pending the outcome of a court battle with the union over whether they were done according to the contract.

The mayor’s anger at Ackerman’s handling of the kindergarten issue was evident in both the letter and some of his subsequent statements. Ackerman later acknowledged that she had upset him, but didn’t mean to, saying she was trying to resolve the issue as fast as possible for the sake of parents and to spare kindergarten teachers layoff notices.

Dworetzky and Commissioner Johnny Irizarry said after the meeting that greater openness regarding the District’s budget was needed.

"I read the mayor’s letter to say [he wanted] closer cooperation and real time information, and I totally get that," Dworetzky said. "I think we welcome the involvement of the city."

Irizarry said that Nutter’s request was "reasonable. … It’s something that I think we all want. We know we have to explain, we have to be transparent, we have to be more accountable."

Despite widespread speculation about a falling out, Shorr said that the talks between the mayor and Ackerman had not broken down. "We’re communicating, we’re working together, we’re deciding on priorities," she said. "I think that this agreement will help that even more."

Thursday’s mayoral deadline for an accountability agreement is followed by City Council hearings Friday on the District’s budget, a continuation of a two-day session in May. Council members are also expected to discuss Nutter’s proposals to raise the property tax by 10 percent and impose a tax on sugary drinks as a way to raise additional funds for the District.

The city funds about one-third of the District’s costs, with the state funding most of the rest. The SRC has no taxing power of its own. Nutter spent most of Tuesday in Harrisburg seeking additional state funding for the city schools.

Benjamin Herold contributed reporting for this article.