This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Mayor Nutter and other key players are looking for ways to change the way Philadelphia’s beleaguered School Reform Commission (SRC) does business, according to several sources close to the situation.
Nutter would like to assert more direct authority over the SRC, possibly by exercising formal oversight of his two appointees to the five-member body, multiple sources said.
But it remains unclear if Gov. Tom Corbett, who appoints the majority of the commissioners and names the group’s chair, supports such a move. It is also unclear if such a plan, even if enacted, would be enough to restore public confidence in the commission, which oversees the District’s 151,000 students and nearly $3 billion budget.
What is beyond doubt is that many want more accountability for the SRC, which is coming off a disastrous eight months marked by a $600-million-plus budget shortfall, the messy and expensive departure of former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, and the scandal over backroom dealing on a lucrative charter contract at Martin Luther King High.
“The culture that has developed over the last ten years with the SRC has been one of independence,” said one source close to the commission. “That model probably doesn’t work.”
Discussions are ongoing, though, and it’s uncertain which, if any, of the plans will take hold.
So far, the only reform proposals laid out in public have come from state legislators who want to abolish the commission altogether.
“The SRC is not accountable to the people of Philadelphia in any way, shape, or form,” said state Sen. Mike Stack of Northeast Philadelphia, who recently cosponsored legislation to replace the SRC with a locally elected nine-member school board.
“We don’t need to do a little better, we need to do dramatically better,” said Stack.
But such legislation has yet to gain traction in either the Senate or the House, and Republican legislative leaders have indicated that a return to an elected school board is a non-starter.
So what’s left are whispers filtering out from behind the scenes – ironic, given that many of the complaints about the SRC center on its lack of accountability and transparency.
At the moment, the commission has just three members. Joseph Dworetzky and Denise McGregor Armbrister were appointed by former Governor Ed Rendell. Wendell Pritchett was just sworn in Wednesday as Mayor Nutter’s newest appointee, filling the seat of former Chairman Robert Archie, who resigned along with former commissioner Johnny Irizarry on September 19. Corbett has nominated Pedro Ramos to fill another seat, but Ramos is still awaiting confirmation by the state Senate. Nutter still has another appointment to make.
Corbett will also soon have another appointee; Armbrister’s term expires in January.
Under the SRC’s current structure, after individuals are appointed, they are formally accountable to no one. A sitting commissioner can only be removed for "clear and convincing evidence of misfeasance or malfeasance," according to statute.
They can be pressured to or choose to resign, however, which has happened.
Nutter, according to multiple sources, has looked into the idea of a new “reporting mechanism,” perhaps by having his two commissioners formally answer to someone in the Mayor’s office. Such a move would represent a “next step” beyond the detailed Education Accountability Agreement signed by the District, city and state last spring, said one source close to the SRC.
But nothing firm is on the table, and so far the mayor’s office has remained tightlipped about the details of any such plans.
“There will be a personnel remaking. Beyond that, I’m not able to comment,” said Mark McDonald, the mayor’s press secretary.
Nutter’s chief education officer, Lori Shorr, did not respond to a request for comment from the Notebook. But earlier this week, Shorr told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the city has to “own our district.”
Such a push would signal that Philadelphia is following a growing national trend towards increased mayoral control of large urban school districts, said Kenneth Wong, the chair of the education department at Brown University and a member of the state-appointed Accountability Review Council (ARC) charged with monitoring the District’s progress.
That could be a good thing for the District, said Wong, who helped oversee a national study that looked at the impact of mayoral control over time in several cities. The study found that it had a positive impact on student achievement and fiscal responsibility in about a dozen large urban districts, including Boston, Chicago, and New York City.
“We found that mayoral control clarifies accountability, creates a focus on student outcomes, and creates the conditions to make it work,” said Wong. Districts with mayoral control, he said, “move more resources to lower-performing schools, downsize central offices, and move more resources to the classroom.”
There are often concerns about opportunities for meaningful public participation, said Wong. But the best examples of mayoral control, he said, build in “checks and balances” to help ensure community input and public accountability. Two such examples that have worked well in other cities, he said, are “nominating commissions” charged with developing a list of possible appointees from which the mayor may select, and a requirement that a city council must approve any mayoral nominations.
Such a model sounds a lot like what Philadelphia had before the state takeover of the
District in 2001, which brought in the SRC as the District’s governing body. Then, Philadelphia had a nine-member Board of Education appointed by the mayor, who chose from among candidates vetted by a nominating committee.
The takeover was precipitated by a bitter political battle between the city and Harrisburg over whether the state had the obligation to provide more money to the District, which was in fiscal crisis.
Ramos, Gov. Corbett’s nominee to the SRC, was president of the school board when it was disbanded.
Whatever changes are made now, said Wong, it is important to avoid a scenario in which there is “the appearance that the mayor has control, but in reality the mayor is significantly constrained.”
The hybrid nature of Philadelphia’s SRC could make it difficult to avoid such a situation.
Gov. Corbett still appoints the majority of the SRC’s commissioners and names its chair. So long as the state continues to be the primary source of revenue for the District, it seems unlikely that the governor will voluntarily relinquish that control.
The governor has remained mum on his vision for the commission moving forward. Some sources indicated that he seems interested in “increased coordination” with the city rather than in heightened oversight.
A Pennsylvania Department of Education spokesperson did not return calls for comment.
As the backroom conversations continue, legislators like Stack remain skeptical that anything short of a complete overhaul of the governing structure can meaningfully address the core issues that have plagued the SRC.
Others say that deep structural flaws with the commission will persist even if there is more coordination or oversight.
There are, for example, no clear ethics and conflict of interest policies specific to the SRC. The commissioners also do not have independent counsel to guide their work and instead must rely on the District’s lawyers. The SRC has also established a pattern of conducting much of its business behind closed doors, in executive sessions and working committees that push the boundaries of the state’s sunshine laws.
It’s unlikely that any changes will take effect before the SRC finally holds its long-delayed September voting meeting, now scheduled for next Wednesday.