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Day one for Bill Green, the ‘change agent’

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

The boos began as soon as Bill Green walked in the door. He waited 32 minutes to bang his gavel – the first he’s ever wielded.

“I really wanted a bigger gavel,” he said later with a laugh. “But they told me that size doesn’t matter. I guess we’ll find out.”

It was exactly 5:38 p.m. when Green entered the auditorium at 440 N. Broad St. for the first of what will likely be dozens of School Reform Commission meetings – five years’ worth, if all goes according to plan.

A packed house was primed and ready. Teachers wearing red shirts and union supporters, parents and community activists, volunteers and professionals, familiar faces and new ones, all seething with frustration built up over year after year of budget cuts, deficits, layoffs, closures, fishy deals, flashy plans and unmet promises.

They came to unload on Bill Green.

The first thing he heard was a loud shout: “Mic check!” Next, the room erupted in thunderous chants. “Whose schools? Our schools! Whose city? Our city!”

Green rolled with it. “That’s a great way to start this meeting – ‘Our city, our schools,’” he replied. As the angry shouts died down a bit, he tried to move briskly into the agenda – “We’re here to do the people’ s business,” he said several times – but the interruptions would not stop.

The SRC honored the teacher of the month. “Don’t take his money away!” shouted the crowd.

Superintendent William Hite tried to give a presentation on the budget. “We’ve heard it!” shouted the crowd.

Hite pressed on, but the crowd wouldn’t settle down: “You do not have the public trust!” “Talk to the teachers!” “Go to Comcast, and you’ll get the money!”

In the audience, one parent sat and seethed. “I’ve been at these schools for 20 years, and it’s the same thing,” he said, his eyes blazing. “I don’t need no strategies, I don’t need no four-point plan. You can change the head, but the body don’t change."

“Puppets — people pulling their strings,” the parent spat, as Green tried to bring order. “How do they sleep at night?”

The chorus of angry shouts surged and ebbed until, finally, at 6:10 p.m., the noise rendered Hite silent. That’s when Bill Green banged his gavel for what surely won’t be the last time. “Excuse me! Dr. Hite is speaking!” Green said.

That just inflamed the protesters even more. “Save our schools! Save our schools! Save our schools!” they chanted.

For a moment, Green simply sat and listened.

Then he joined in, adding his own voice through the microphone. “Save our schools! Save our schools!”

“That’s what Dr. Hite is trying to do,” he added as the noise died back down.

That’s what Bill Green says he’s trying to do, too.

A ‘change agent’

Make no mistake: Bill Green arrives at 440 N. Broad St. as an SRC chair unlike any other.

He’s not James Nevels or Sandra Dungee Glenn or Robert Archie, who diplomatically supported high-profile superintendents. He’s not Pedro Ramos, cautiously steering the District through a massive financial and leadership crisis.

Instead, he’s here to pick up the pieces and help assemble them into something new.

“What I am is a change agent,” Green said in an interview. “I’m not here to do the status quo.”

The man whose childhood hero was Bobby Kennedy sees education – “particularly urban education” – as the civil rights issue of our time. He has no interest in half-measures that might boost a few schools or patch a few holes.

Instead, his mission is twofold.

First, he’s here to help create a new day-to-day educational paradigm (a “platform,” as he calls it) for the entire District. He wants unionized teachers to agree to work rules and hiring practices that allow them to be managed like staffs in the best charters. He wants both District-run and charter schools held to equally high standards.

Second, he’s here to do it all using the budget provided by the governor who appointed him – the governor who, he insists, he will not “embarrass in public.”

In the long run, Green suspects that it may be beyond the power of the city and state alone to support urban schools adequately. The federal government may need to get more involved, he said.

“If another country came to America and did to our children what we do in our public schools, we would think it was an act of war,” he said.

But for now, it’s all about state government – and to a lesser degree, the city – and what it is prepared to spend. And Green arrives at a time when the message from Harrisburg is clear: The state isn’t interested in spending more.

“Philadelphia is a foreign nation in Harrisburg, so the question is, ‘How much foreign aid are we giving?” said Donna Cooper, who was an aide to former Gov. Ed Rendell and now runs the advocate group Public Citizens for Children and Youth. “It doesn’t matter who the SRC chair is. It could be God, and that would still be an issue.”

So prepare to hear more of what are already becoming familiar mantras for Green: The District “has no taxing authority.” It can only control its expenses, not its revenue. Demanding that Harrisburg restore funding to pre-Corbett levels is futile. Those who want to boost spending should join him in urging the union to make concessions – concessions that will both improve conditions in schools and classrooms, and show Harrisburg that Philadelphia is worth investing in.

“Solving the teachers’ contract is about much more than just what happens in schools,” Green said. “We have to have a platform to allow us to succeed, and then go talk to people about what [funding] is required. The people who want money first are putting the cart before the horse.”

So Green’s goals are ambitious. He’s been developing them for years. But will he have the power to see them realized?

Observers agree: That depends.

A career-making moment

Green is stepping into a position that may not have a lot of built-in executive authority, but does have the potential to carry a lot of clout. Because the SRC hires the superintendent and gets the final say on the budget, it can shape the entire $2.4 billion enterprise.

“It’s a very powerful position,” said Cooper. “Like any executive of a corporation, if you can hire and fire the top person and have approval of the budget, then you have all the power that you need to influence the organization.”

At the same time, it’s a fundamentally small-p political position – Green can’t be successful if he can’t muster support from both the public and votes from his four SRC colleagues. Wielding the gavel is different from anything he’s done before, even when he was mustering blocs of support for legislation in Council.

“One of the chair’s responsibilities is to bring people to consensus,” said Lori Shorr, Mayor Nutter’s top education deputy. “That is part of what you’ve got to do in that position.” In Council, she noted, he only needed to represent his constituents.

Given the practical and political complexity of the task he faces, success is far from assured, even if Green handles his tasks well.

“It’s like, ‘Congratulations – you’ve just been given the opportunity to resolve the Vietnam War,’” said Zack Stalberg of the watchdog group, the Committee of Seventy.

But if the task would be daunting for anyone, the incentive for Green to succeed is unique.

Unlike anyone who has chaired the SRC before, Green is a political creature who may well someday ask the public for votes. He could reap a real and tangible reward for delivering the best possible education to the most people.

Likewise, he could suffer a real blow to his future fortunes if his tenure were to be undone by scandals, ugly politics, busted budgets or anything else.

Green has been silent on what might come after his five-year term at the SRC; he won’t rule anything out, but says he plans to fulfill his commitment to Hite and the city. “I have the same goals as the SRC chair as [I had] as a city councilman – to help Philadelphia grow and thrive,” he said.

But observers agree that if he wants to stay in the family business – his father was mayor, his grandfather a congressman and legendary Democratic party boss – a successful run at the helm of the SRC would position Green for any number of possible political futures.

Mayor Green? Senator Green?

Green demurs. “I don’t have ambitions for any particular office,” he said.

But Cooper sees a man in a potentially career-making position. “Anybody who shows improvement in two or three years, that person will be lauded as a war hero, and be Eisenhower, and get elected within a day,” she said.

Green’s former City Council colleague Jannie Blackwell sees the same thing. If Green can show significant improvement in Philadelphia’s schools, she said, “for him and his career, the sky’s the limit.”

And if things don’t work out, Blackwell added with a knowing smile, “he can go back to his job at the law firm.”

We’ll get together’

For now, Green says, it’s “far too early” for anyone to judge him. He’s just beginning a long and complex journey, and a wide range of vexing issues and anxious constituencies await his attention.

And as he sat behind the microphone in 440 for the first time, Green did a lot more listening than talking.

The crowd tested Green all night, challenging him and the entire SRC, voicing its frustration in testimony and impromptu shouts. All night, Green tried to maintain respectful order, steering clear of anger or impatience, trying to show sympathy.

When teachers and advocates tried to challenge him with questions, he wouldn’t engage (“continue with your testimony”). When the crowd got too unruly, he tried to rein it in.

But when community advocate “Mama” Gail Clouden predicted fire and brimstone – "the ancestors are not very happy!” – he quoted a Bible verse, Titus 1.5, comparing his task to that of an elder asked to “put what remained into order.”

When Khyrie Brown, 13, invited Green to visit his struggling school – “I am a young Black man trying to survive in the hood! I want to get somewhere in life!” – Green rose immediately to thank him and take him up on his offer. “I appreciate you,” he said.

And when Diane Payne, a retired teacher whose testimony boiled with anger, handed Green a copy of a book by charter critic Diane Ravitch – triggering what was by far the audience’s loudest cheer of the evening – Green said not only that he’d read it, but that “we’ll get together and talk.”

He repeated the sentiment to the entire room at the end of the meeting. “There’s a lot we can do together, regardless of how we feel about particular issues.”

It’s clear that Green plans to hold the line on spending. As soon as the meeting was over and the TV cameras turned on him, he repeated his mantra: We have no taxing authority; we must work with what we have. No one is likely to hear Bill Green stand up and demand that Tom Corbett to roll back his budget cuts anytime soon.

But it’s also clear that he wants people to believe that he is here to collaborate in good faith.

He backed Hite’s budget requests and academic proposals. He thanked the people who came out to listen and share. He joked that the meeting wasn’t as angry as it could have been. He expressed hope that people can work together to find solutions.

And as he prepared to head into a post-meeting press conference to discuss details of Hite’s plans – the first, surely, of many such briefings – he was asked, How did you do?

“I have no idea,” he said with a smile. “I did the best I could. That’s all we ask of our students, and our teachers, and that’s what I did."

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