This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
After a long day at City Council, Pedro Ramos, Thomas Knudsen, and Penny Nixon sped to Northwest Philadelphia on Tuesday night to face about 2,500 people at the city’s largest African American religious congregation, Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church.
In the vast sanctuary, their faces projected on TV screens, the three officials faced dozens of pointed questions regarding plans for the future of education in Philadelphia that made Council’s questions look easy.
The 15,000-member church held the meeting "because we are pro-public education and we are concerned about the direction that the state and the SRC [School Reform Commission] have taken," said Pastor Alyn E. Waller in a later interview.
"We felt we could bring more people to the table than at SRC meetings and help them see how many resources are available in the community to assist in the process."
He added, "We also wanted them to see there’s just not a lot of good public support for the plan as it presently is."
Waller, who is also the assistant wrestling coach at Martin Luther King High School, said there was no intention to put the school officials on the spot – but that’s what happened. Waller said he was primarily disappointed because there was little discussion about how the state bears responsibility for underfunding public education.
For instance, Knudsen, the District’s chief recovery officer, who was asked more than a dozen questions about finances, said he was trying to fill some of the vast budget gaps – about $20 million remaining this year, at least $200 million next year – by collecting delinquent property taxes owed the city.
"The taxpayers of Philadelphia owe the District about $250 million. You’ll be hearing a lot about that from me, ‘please pay your bill, it’s going to help the kids get an education next year,’" Knudsen said.
Waller said he couldn’t believe Knudsen said that, given that lack of action by the state legislature had cost the state $300 million in lost revenue from gas drilling taxes.
"It kind of came across as blaming the victim," Waller said.
Parent activist Helen Gym (also a Notebook board member), who also spoke, immediately blasted Knudsen.
"We’ve paid our bills. We’ve fought for a good education for our children," Gym said. "Any public official who says we have to live within our means is not a public official concerned about our children."
City Council had also expressed concern that the SRC was not sufficiently lobbying Harrisburg for more funds.
When asked about the superintendent search, Ramos, the SRC chair, said there were 30 applicants, 50 others whose names had been submitted, and 10 candidates interviewed so far. The plans are to have someone hired by July and on board by September, he said.
Waller said he had heard that Knudsen may get a contract extension and that the answer was not sufficiently responsive.
Enon’s membership includes some of the city’s most influential educators, including Nixon, the District’s chief academic officer, and Cassandra Jones, former acting chief academic officer. Jones was one of the meeting’s major organizers.
After the public presentation, the vast throng divided up into discussion groups. Their suggestions will be compiled in two weeks and made public, Waller said.
Meetings like this "are only as productive as the next step," Waller said.
"What we need to do is distill this information and get it into the public discourse and dialogue."