This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
School Reform Commissioner Bill Green said Tuesday that he was filing suit to regain his position as chair of the SRC, a position he lost a year ago when Gov. Wolf replaced him with former Masterman principal Marjorie Neff.
Green and his attorney, David Osborne, said Wolf, a Democrat, was "meddling" with the SRC for ideological reasons – primarily his opposition to the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and his pro-charter views. They said Wolf overstepped his authority in removing Green, who was appointed chair by Wolf’s predecessor, Republican Tom Corbett.
SRC members can only be removed from office for wrongdoing or malfeasance. Green and Osborne said that the SRC chairmanship constitutes an "office." Green remains a member of the SRC.
Green is being represented by the Fairness Center, based in Harrisburg. On its website, it describes itself as a "nonprofit public interest law firm offering free legal services to those facing unjust treatment from public employee union leaders." Osborne said it is the organization’s policy not to release its funders, but one of its trustees is Matthew Brouillette, head of the conservative Commonwealth Foundation.
"Wolf has a pattern of overstepping his authority," Osborne said, citing his removal of Erik Arneson as the state’s open records officer. Arneson won reinstatement in court.
After the press conference, Green said that if he regains the chairmanship, Philadelphia may have more success in Harrisburg in securing more funds for the District. Members of the General Assembly, he said, "would not be displeased if I become chair."
The Fairness Center press release is heavy on describing the anomosity between Green and the PFT, as well as his pro-charter views.
"Vilified by the PFT for what they viewed as his spearheading the effort to dismantle contract negotiations, Green became a whipping boy for the PFT in organized protests against the SRC," the release states. "… Green has also been a strong supporter of charter schools as one effective tool to reach Philadelphia children, a policy position vehemently opposed by both the PFT and Gov. Wolf."
The PFT has not had a contract for nearly four years. Green blames the impasse on the union’s unwillingness to bend on changing work rules that he says are necessary to improve education, including a longer school day and relaxing some seniority rules that hamper principals in building a like-minded team at their schools.
The PFT did not respond to Green’s action. But Lisa Haver of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, a PFT ally, called Green’s move a "pointless power grab" that is diverting attention from policy failures, such as the decision to outsource substitute service that has resulted in hundreds of sporadically staffed classrooms this year.
“Commissioner Green’s attack on Gov. Wolf doesn’t address the real issue, that the people of this city continue to lose out because of the failure of the Republican-led legislature to fully fund Pennsylvania’s schools,” Haver said.
Green and Neff, although they have declared mutual respect for each other, are on different sides of the issue of whether expansion of charter schools is good or bad for the financially struggling District, and for parents and students. Green, a Democrat who quit his City Council seat to lead the SRC, favors charter expansion. Neff, and Wolf, believe that there should be no new charters until the District is on sound financial footing.
Now, due to the way education is funded in Pennsylvania, each new charter seat costs the District money and forces cutbacks in District-run schools, a situation that some have likened to "cannibalization" or a "Hunger Games" approach to school funding.
Wolf replaced Green shortly after he voted to approve five new charter schools out of 39 applications. Neff voted no on all of them.
Both Wolf and Neff said that the day-to-day operations of the SRC would not change during the lawsuit. Neff issued a statement:
"This is a point of law and will be decided in the courts. In the meantime, I expect this to have no impact on the day-to-day work of the commission. We respect one another and work well together. We remain focused on the students of Philadelphia and the critical work of governance."
Wolf also issued a statement saying he properly used his authority "as provided by statute." He also cited the continuing battle over sufficient school funding for Philadelphia and other districts that he has been waging in Harrisburg – unsuccessfully – since taking office. He also took the opportunity to double down on criticizing legislative leaders.
"Even now, after the governor has fought for greater investment in education at all levels and started to restore the funding Philadelphia lost, the district is in dire financial straits and our children are at a disadvantage," the statement said. "Due to misguided and poor decisions made by Harrisburg politicians, the district has been forced to lay off educators, cut important programs and slash transportation, security and other vital services. Governor Wolf will continue fighting for more funding for education and to provide a new path forward for Philadelphia’s schools."
Green said that he would be the first to move to disband the SRC, which was established by the state to replace the Board of Education in 2001 because the District was academically and fiscally distressed.
"I want to be the voice for the SRC advocating for what’s needed in Harrisburg and hopefully bring the resources to bear that the governor has been unable to do so far," he said at the press conference.
"I’ve always said the SRC, when we have the resources to put Dr. Hite’s Action Plan, over a four- or five-year period, into action and be sustainable, I’ll be the first person to move on the floor to eliminate the position. I don’t think of this as a permanent position, but temporary, leading to local control."