This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The Philadelphia School Reform Commission is facing widespread questions about whether it acted illegally when it quickly passed a new resolution during its January meeting.
Critics allege that the commission violated the state’s government transparency laws.
Late into January’s five-hour SRC meeting, Commissioner Sylvia Simms introduced a surprise motion. The text of the resolution was not given to the public beforehand, and the body did not invite public comment on that specific resolution before voting.
Simms’ resolution, which immediately passed, resuscitated the idea of converting Germantown’s Wister Elementary to a charter school. Technically, the resolution invited a full application from Mastery Charter Schools to take over Wister.
Superintendent William Hite had pitched conversion of Wister in October, but rescinded his recommendation in early January based on evidence of test-score growth at the school.
Those who opposed the conversion felt blindsided by the surprise resolution. Many who otherwise would have come to testify against it say they stayed home because they were assured by the superintendent that conversion was no longer a possibility.
"I do wish I was there, so when she stood up and said what she said, I could have interrupted her and said, ‘How dare you?’" said Wister parent Kenya Nation Holmes.
Was it legal?
Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act does not require governmental agencies to publish resolution agendas prior to meetings. The SRC typically does so anyway weeks in advance.
But the sunshine law does mandate that the public needs a chance to weigh in on an action before a vote, which Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke says did not happen in this case.
"I believe that is clearly a violation of the Sunshine Act, both in terms of law and in terms of the spirit of the law," said Clarke.
To Clarke, the move is more evidence that the unelected, state-controlled body should be dissolved. "It is clearly time for it to go away," he said.
Criticism does not end with Clarke. Mayor Kenney said he was "shocked" by the board’s course of action, and Councilwoman Helen Gym believes there should be a formal investigation.
The Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools says the circumstances of the vote should nullify its outcome. Co-founder Lisa Haver says this latest action continues a trend. In October 2014, the SRC voted to cancel its contract with the teachers union without first hearing public comment.
"It really tells people that the SRC does not play by the rules. There’s no other governmental body which is allowed to introduce a bill and vote on it one minute later," said Haver.
School District general counsel Michael Davis disagrees with the criticism in this case. He argues that the SRC got plenty of public input on the idea — even if it came before the formal resolution was written.
"There was abundant public comment from parents on both sides of that issue for weeks, maybe months before the meeting," he said.