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cindy bass town hall

Photo by Greg Windle

Greg Windle / The Notebook

Residents want elected school board members with skin in the game

Councilwoman Bass is holding town halls on replacing the SRC.

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

Parents and activists at a town hall meeting last week — held by City Councilwoman Cindy Bass at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia — offered opinions about the kind of school board they want to replace the School Reform Commission, which has run the city’s school system since 2001.

First and foremost, they said, they want board members who have skin in the game, especially people who have children in public schools.

Bass answered some questions, but she mostly collected the attendees’ concerns to relay to Mayor Kenney.

The town hall was the first of five that Bass is holding in her Eighth Council District, which is largely Northwest Philadelphia.

The most prominent topic at Wednesday’s town hall was an elected school board, which most participants favored, versus an appointed school board, which is the planned next step after the SRC is dismantled.

“It amazes me, the difference between public school in other parts of the state compared to public school in Philadelphia,” said Sabra Townsend, a member of Parents United. “We as the people of Philadelphia need to hold whatever body comes out of this accountable, whatever that board looks like … and there needs to be a parent voice on that board.”

And that point — that board members need to be community members who have a personal stake in the outcome — was echoed by practically everyone who spoke.

“I’d like to see an intergenerational board. … I’m a taxpayer, and we plan to grow older in the city of Philadelphia. These children are going to be taking care of us,” said Renee Mills, a Philadelphia public school graduate whose daughter also went to public schools in the city. “I want to be involved myself, and I want to bring back arts and music — all these things that we had, being the first graduating class of Martin Luther King High School.”

She criticized the closure of many schools in North and Northwest Philadelphia, while schools in the Northeast weren’t touched.

“During the last redistricting in the city … most of the population growth in Philadelphia was east of Broad Street,” Bass responded. “There were schools out there [in Northeast Philadelphia] that were busting at the seams. Meanwhile, you had schools in other parts of the city that were really not even close to capacity.”

Bass said that, although she understood the reasoning, she didn’t agree with all the individual school closures in her district.

“I think some of the schools that they closed could have stayed open, should have stayed open,” Bass said. “But I also have to recognize that there were some major shifts in terms of where the population of Philadelphia goes to school.”

One point of contention was whether the city should be moving toward an elected school board or should settle with the default of a mayor-appointed school board. Most people at the meeting gave their opinions, and most favored an elected board — though a few also spoke in favor of an appointed board or a hybrid of the two models.

“I think all the problems with the SRC stem from the lack of accountability," Lisa Haver told Bass. Haver is a co-founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools. "As an elected official, you know you have to be accountable to your constituents because if they don’t like what you do, they will vote you out. There’s no reason why only the people of Philadelphia should continue to be disenfranchised when everybody else in the state gets to vote for who represents them on their school boards. Everybody except us in Philadelphia.”

Haver and Lynda Rubin, of the same organization, criticized the SRC for a lack of transparency, particularly in the process of awarding contracts.

“A lot of this goes back to transparency,” Bass replied. “You have all these contracts to outside providers that are in business and making money — some of them are probably doing a great job and some others are quite questionable, in my own opinion. When you bundle [these contracts] together in an SRC vote, and you aren’t able to see exactly what’s in that bundle, it’s just not transparent at all.”

Ramona Chase-Powell, who identified herself as a former employee of the School District, said the school near her, Roosevelt Elementary, has been stripped of its “safety net” of support staff and is down to a “skeleton crew.”

“I would like to see the old school board come back. They were more accountable. There were actually rules in place,” Chase-Powell said. “There are rules implemented now by the state of Pennsylvania, but they’re not all being followed; there’s no real watchdog like there used to be. At Central [High School], they get endowments from alumni, but Martin Luther King [High] — they don’t have that. They’re at the bare bones now, too.”

Kenya Nation-Holmes, who has two children in the District, was involved in resisting the SRC’s attempt to turn John Wister Elementary over to Mastery three years ago.

“I’m a little upset because three years ago, where was all this passion for the local school board?” she asked Bass. “When Mastery Charter was at its height, when the SRC was at the height of not listening to parents and the community — not even listening to the superintendent himself — where was all this three years ago? Where was Council? Where was everyone?

“It felt like we were fighting alone. Now the SRC is going down in flames and you want to talk about what’s best for the school board. Is this passion going to continue?”

“I can’t answer what’s going to happen with Mastery or any other charter providers. What we’re trying to do is give guidance to the mayor,” Bass replied. “With Mastery at Wister, there were a number of parents who felt some kind of way about that particular transaction. Dr. Hite [the school superintendent] was in one place, and then he was in another place. Mastery is at Wister now — operating Wister now — and we’re moving forward.”

Kendra Brooks, a parent and organizer with Parents United, was concerned about the membership of the committee that will nominate potential school board members, a field from which the mayor would then choose nine people.

“When we’re talking about high-ranking officials from unions or universities, they should be Philadelphia residents. If you don’t live in Philadelphia, you should not be allowed on the committee,” Brooks said, drawing applause. “If you don’t have a vested interest in public education, then it’s not your fight, because then it becomes an invested interest.”

Brooks said that Philadelphia “should have an elected school board like every other district in Pennsylvania. Every time I bring this up, people complain about dark money coming into the election. Dark money is already in every other election in Philadelphia. We have corrupt politicians getting elected every day. But I’m also sure there are everyday people who want to run and have children in these schools, that wouldn’t take a dime to sell out our kids. Ultimately, Philadelphians need to fight for Philadelphia.”

Bass said she agrees with that “stakeholders” should be on the nominating committee and the future school board, but added: “Even though they haven’t helped … the relationship with Harrisburg is still important, but it needs to be productive.”

David Rose, a parent from Germantown, called for an independent audit of the District. His call was seconded by two other parents, one of whom criticized the District for hiring Edison Schools Inc. to conduct the last supposedly independent audit – in 2001 – when “Edison wanted a piece of the pie.”

“There can’t be a vested interest,” Bass said. “To be honest, when Edison did this audit, people should have been jumping up and down, screaming and shouting that this is inappropriate because they had a vested interest in the outcome of this particular audit.”

Members of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools and Parents United cried out from the audience that they were publicly complaining about it at the time.

“I’m not saying that you weren’t. I’m just saying that, collectively, we all should have been paying much more attention,” Bass said. “Elected officials should have been saying this should not happen — that this is not appropriate.”

Staff from the councilwoman’s office collected sheets of paper that attendees were invited to fill out, offering their comments and suggestions. These, along with the questions asked during the meeting, will be relayed to the mayor, according to Bass.

Bass also had a Nov. 11 town hall meeting, and she plans three more in her Council district. The next one has not yet been scheduled, but she has been announcing the events on her Facebook page.

History lesson

Before taking questions Wednesday, Bass asked George Burrell to speak. Burrell was the member of former Mayor John Street’s administration who was tasked with negotiating the terms with Harrisburg that ultimately created the SRC.

Burrell said the SRC was created to resolve “an issue of funding,” but “Philadelphia actually had positions of strength in Harrisburg at the time.”

He was referring to Dwight Evans, a Democrat from Philadelphia who was then chair of the Pennsylvania House Appropriations Committee, along with Democratic Sen. Vince Fumo and Republican Rep. John Perzel — both of whom have since left politics after facing corruption charges, though Perzel’s $1 million restitution order was dismissed on appeal. Evans left his seat after he was elected to Congress in 2016.

Burrell said that until 2010, while those Democrats were still in office, Harrisburg gave the city money that it’s been unwilling to give since then, at least until Republican Gov. Tom Corbett lost the 2014 election to Democrat Tom Wolf — though Wolf himself has faced obstruction in Harrisburg.

He said Harrisburg’s obligation to fairly fund Philadelphia schools is “a responsibility that they do not take seriously,” and he applauded the mayor’s effort to return the District to local control.

Bass requested that people asking questions identify themselves and what organization they are with. Burrell, however, did not identify himself as the former chief operating officer of Universal Companies — one of the District’s charter school management companies — or as an attorney with Kleinbard LLC, a firm that provides legal services to charter schools. His employment was particularly relevant in light of his closing statement: What Philadelphia needs is a “set of demographics by which we can measure performance in public education.”

That idea has been long been advanced by proponents of charter school expansion, and some members of the audience later pushed back against his speech — though Burrell had already left.