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Antione Little

Greg Windle

Greg Windle / The Notebook

Activists press for SRC to disband itself, push mayor to start the process

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

Update: A spokesperson for the Mayor contacted the Notebook after the publication of the article to point out the Mayor never technically promised to abolish the SRC and return the District to local control. But he’s also made statements such as,"the SRC is probably ready to be gone," which have left activists confused about his position.

Members of the Our City Our Schools coalition held a rally outside City Hall on Wednesday, calling on the School Reform Commission to start the process this month of disbanding itself so that a locally controlled governing body can be in place before the gubernatorial election next year.

The coalition also wants Mayor Kenney to create a school governance transition task force to seek input from families, community members, and school staff about what form a new governing body should take.

Speakers at the rally said that at a meeting two weeks ago with members of Kenney’s staff, they asked why the mayor had yet to announce a timeline for the SRC’s dissolution and replacement, which he said during his election campaign that he favored.

“Our schools must be back to local control by the fall of 2018 to avoid another Republican governor,” said Sara Arment, an organizer with Reclaim Philadelphia. She was referring to former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s massive budget cuts to public education starting in 2011 that disproportionately affected the city. “The state does not share the interests of Philadelphia!”

The group said that according to its reading of Act 46, the law through which the state took over the city’s schools, the SRC’s next scheduled meeting on Aug. 17 would be the last chance to take action if a locally controlled governing body is to be in place by the start of the 2018-19 school year.

"We did not, at any point, commit to providing a timeline to the activists," said Lauren Hitt, spokesperson for the mayor, in an email. "In our first meeting, we said that discussions about dissolving the SRC were premature until Estelle was appointed, which seemed uncertain, given the delay." She was referring to Estelle Richman, nominated by Gov. Wolf last year. She was confirmed by the state Senate and took her seat in May.

Hitt also said that the SRC doesn’t have to vote on dissolution this month "to return to local control for School Year 2018-2019. Act 46 says they have until 180 days before end of 2017-2018 school year, which would be December."

The activists, however, dispute that timeline and want a firmer commitment from the mayor.

“With Trump in office and Betsy DeVos as the education secretary, our future is now in the balance,” said Ismael Jimenez, co-chair of the Working Educators caucus of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. “If we have a new governor that overtakes Wolf, we will no longer have any leverage to get local control.

“We’re going to take a stand, and I want Mayor Kenney to hear this.”

Antione Little, chair of the Our City Our Schools campaign and an organizer with 215 People’s Alliance, said, “We remember the school closures and budget cuts under Tom Corbett and we won’t risk that ever again. We can’t afford to fail our children with this experiment. Our kids deserve better, our educators deserve better, parents deserve better. Let’s end it now.”

Much of the rally focused on frustration stemming from the campaign promises of the mayor and governor, who both campaigned on support for abolishing the SRC and returning the city’s public schools to local control, but have not taken concrete action on the matter since being elected two years ago.

Two SRC members reached by telephone said that they did not expect any vote on the topic at the Aug. 17 meeting.

Commissioner Christopher McGinley, who is on record saying that he favors returning the District to local control, said that under his reading, the SRC doesn’t have to take action that soon.

“That’s not the timetable as I understand it. I’m not anticipating any action at this SRC meeting on that issue," he said, adding, “I’ve made my feelings known, I believe in local governance, I’ve said that before.”

Commissioner Farah Jimenez (no relation to Ismael), also said that she expected no action next week.

“I’m not aware of the SRC … intending to spend any time on Thursday exploring this possibility, but it is important to have a conversation about planful transition and dissolution of the SRC,” she said.

But that needs to be accompanied by a discussion of how the District will be funded going forward. The District, which relies on the city and state for most of its funds, is forecasting a shortfall in five years of nearly $1 billion in what is now a $3 billion budget.

The new teachers’ contract that was finally approved in June will cost $200 million over three years.

Returning to local control “is an important conversation to have, but it must be concurrent with a thoughtful plan for fiscal stability for our School District.”

The SRC has no taxing power of its own, but neither did the governing body it replaced, a nine-member Board of Education that was appointed by the mayor. For the District’s governing body to be able to raise its own taxes, it most likely would have to be elected, as are the boards of education in the state’s 499 other school districts.

“Fifteen years is enough time. … We do not have another year to wait,” said Marguerite Stanford, secretary-treasurer of District 1199C, National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees. “Mayor Kenney and Gov. Wolf should uphold their pledge to abolish the School Reform Commission through a simple majority of the School Reform Commissioners, that they both appointed. Time is of the essence. We urge you to act now.”

The SRC was created to lift the District out of financial and academic distress and was given the power by Act 46 to vote itself out of existence when that mission was accomplished. But for most of the 16 years that the District has been under the SRC’s control, its fiscal situation has remained precarious. However, the SRC has a brief window of stability at the moment because it anticipates ending the 2018 fiscal year with a small surplus.

The coalition pushing the SRC’s replacement is a cooperative effort between numerous advocacy groups, some of which have long histories working on local education issues and others that are new to the scene.

Sheila Armstrong was there to represent POWER, an interfaith network of community organizers drawn from more than 40 congregations around the city that has been involved in advocating for equality in public education for nearly a decade.

Armstrong emphasized the importance of creating a task force to solicit feedback from residents of the city on what should replace the SRC. She said that getting the task force started is urgent because its findings and recommendations would need to be public by June 2018 if the coalition hopes to establish a new governance body for the 2018-19 school year.

“Mayor Jim Kenney ran on an education and local-control based platform, promising the people of Philadelphia that he supported local control and would work for it,” said Luke Risher, a recent graduate of Science Leadership Academy, former Student Union activist, and member of a new student-lead education advocacy organization called UrbEd. He added that they initially saw Kenney as an ally.

Risher explained that coalition members first met with the mayor’s staff months ago. At the time, Chief Education Officer Otis Hackney and Deputy Mayor for Policy and Legislation Jim Engler told Risher and other coalition members that the mayor would produce a timeline for abolishing the SRC and restoring local control, but not until Estelle Richman had taken her seat on the SRC.

Two weeks ago, after Richman had taken her seat, coalition members met with Hackney and Engler again.

“Both representatives were not eager to talk about the timeline or the vote for local control, instead shifting the conversation to what would come after and other education issues,” Risher said. “Both said they couldn’t give a timeline in the meeting but would get back to us in a couple weeks. We followed up and they failed to respond. Two weeks later, here we are.”

The mayor’s press office has not yet responded to a request for comment.

Lisa Haver from Activists from the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, a member of the coalition, pointed out that it will be difficult to make a case for a vote at the Aug. 17 SRC meeting because the District’s new website, at the moment, only makes available SRC minutes and resolutions for the past year and does not yet include all the information it used to from the city’s Open Data Initiative.

Two local politicians released statements in support of the coalition’s efforts.

“For 16 years, Philadelphia — the cradle of liberty — has been treated like a colony by the powers that be in Harrisburg,” said State Rep. Chris Rabb, a Democrat from Northwest Philadelphia. “Shortly after the SRC was created, former Gov. Schweiker said, ‘I believe we will give rise to the finest urban school district in the country.’ Since then, our district’s enrollment declined from 220,000 students to about 142,000 today. Our schools remain underfunded. Our children are still denied a quality education. And our bureaucratic school board continues to deny the public the transparency it deserves.”

City Councilwoman Helen Gym, formerly an education activist with Parents United, made District governance and equity in education central to her platform during her campaign. The theme was not a common one on the campaign trail, but she went on to win the most votes out of the 14 candidates for at-large City Council seats that year.

“The years have not been kind to the SRC,” said Gym in a statement. “Throughout its history — which includes a Supreme Court ruling to limit its overreach, a federal civil rights settlement for racial harassment and abuse of immigrant students, a futile and destructive attack on Philadelphia teachers to unilaterally end collective bargaining, and reckless pursuit to expand charter schools without regard to quality or accountability — the SRC has remained persistently and stubbornly unaccountable to the public it serves.”

She noted that a “democratically elected school board” is the governing system for all other districts in the state.

“It is critical that we have school board members who understand the impact of their decisions on the families and communities which support our schools with their children and their tax dollars. … End the SRC and let’s prove that local politics and local governance makes the difference.”

Since the summer began, the coalition has met with SRC Commissioners McGinley and Richman, and Chair Joyce Wilkerson to discuss their demands and proposed timeline, which has four phases.

First, at least three of the five members of the SRC would have to vote to disband the commission. Then, before Dec. 14, the state secretary of education would have to issue a declaration to dissolve the SRC.

The second phase would take place over the winter, when a task force of seven citizens would talk with residents and compile recommendations from community members about how the new body should function. In January 2018, the task force would issue recommendations to guide legislation to create a new Board of Education, to be passed by City Council in the subsequent months.

In the May 15, 2015, election, a majority of voters supported a non-binding ballot question that asked whether the SRC should be abolished and replaced by local control.

The final phase depends on the findings and recommendations of the task force. If it found that residents wanted an appointed board, members would be appointed in the summer of 2018. If the task force found support for an elected model or a combination of the two, members could be elected in a special election that summer or wait until the November general election.

“The SRC was brought in to improve the District, but we don’t see any improvements,” said Tamir Harper, a student activist formerly with Youth for National Change and the founder of UrbED. Personally, he said, he would like to see a fully elected board, “but we have to take it one step at a time. First we want to have a conversation with students, parents, and staff.”

“Jim Kenney failed to uphold his campaign promises by not providing a timeline or even a response regarding a timeline,” said Elani Gonzalez-Ortiz, another member of UrbED. “We ask for a public statement in September of 2017 in support of [our] timeline or on bringing an alternative timeline that would result in local control.”

A spokesperson for the Mayor contacted the Notebook after the publication of the article to point out the Mayor never technically promised to abolish the SRC and return the District to local control. But he’s also made statements like "the SRC is probably ready to be gone," which have left activists confused about his position.