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School board nominating panel getting down to work

Part of the first meeting, on Friday morning, is open to the public.

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

Editor’s Note: This story has been corrected to say that the Philadelphia School Partnership is not funded by SuperPacs, but does have some common donors with Students First PA, part of a network of SuperPacs affiliated with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Updated: the PSP did not directly take money from Betsy Devos’ Students First PA PAC, which only directly contributed to the PSP’s Excellent Schools PA PAC, although the PSP is funded in part by some of the same donors as Devos’ Pennsylvania PAC.

The 13-member nominating panel charged with proposing candidates for the new Board of Education will start its work Friday morning, convening in City Hall for a session that is partly open to the public.

Chosen by Mayor Kenney, the members of the group range from parents and educators to members of the Chamber of Commerce, the head of the local AFL-CIO, and several nonprofit directors. Some are affiliated with charter school advocacy groups, have been on charter boards, or have worked for charter organizations.

About a third of the students in the city now attend charter schools, each of which has its own board but all of which are authorized by the District’s governing body.

The City Charter specifies that the nominating panel must include representatives from various sectors, including labor, business, and higher education.

The panel is charged with providing Kenney with 27 names by the end of February, from which he will choose nine people to serve on the school board. It will begin governing the District on July 1 after 16 years of state control through the School Reform Commission.

Sarah Peterson, spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Education, said that 200 applications and nominations already had been submitted through the online portal set up on the city website for that purpose. She doesn’t know how many of those might be duplicates – people can nominate themselves or others – or how many paper applications may have come through regular mail or dropped off in City Hall Room 204. Nominations will be accepted until Jan. 31.

Even so, it is clear that there is widespread interest in serving on the new Board of Education, despite the difficulties that will come with the job. The board will oversee a nearly $3 billion organization, and the members’ positions will be unpaid and time-consuming. Members will have no control over revenues coming into the system, unlike elected school boards in the rest of the state, and must bear the brunt of public dissatisfaction. Although the District is now running a small surplus, projections indicate an annual shortfall of $700 million by 2022 as expected revenue doesn’t keep up with expenses – many of which are mandated, such as charter school costs, pension payments, and debt service.

At Friday’s meeting, the nominating panel will elect officers and establish its procedures. Peterson said that it is required to hold two public meetings. The second one will most likely be when it votes on the names to submit to Kenney, she said. In between, its deliberations will be private, considered executive sessions.

Wendell Pritchett, provost at the University of Pennsylvania and a former SRC member, is one of the more prominent names on the nominating committee.

Following Kenney’s directive, he said, “We are looking for people with a wide variety of experiences, a passion for public education, and different kinds of expertise, including legal, financial, educational, community engagement, and working with parents and young people.”

It is also essential to maintain diversity in the pool of nominees to send to Kenney, although it is up to the mayor to craft a board that is diverse and represents various groups and constituencies in the city.

“Mostly, I’ll be looking for people who have a belief that every child should be successful,” Pritchett said. “All of us have to believe that every child can be successful, not just some. That’s an overarching requirement for everybody.”

Committee member Kendra Brooks, an organizer with Parents United, said she’s going to be looking for candidates prepared to deal with the upcoming budget shortfall without slashing essential services like the counselors, nurses, and librarians that were cut during the last deficit.

“I want someone who’s aware of the financial crisis that the District faces, but is willing to look outside the box. … I can’t imagine what cuts we could make in good conscience,” Brooks said.

She said making ends meet will require “tough decisions,” such as rethinking the 10-year tax abatement for much new construction, imposing PILOTS (payments-in-lieu-of-taxes) for universities, “even taking on the Parking Authority for the money they owe but we never got.”

Candidates chosen by Brooks wouldn’t have to agree with her on everything, she said, because she feels that a variety of opinions would yield a better result. But she does have some core moral requirements.

“I want someone who has an investment — not a financial investment, but a true stakeholder like parents and community members,” Brooks said. “I want someone who’s aware of the school-to-prison pipeline and how those [discipline] decisions affect children from the cradle to the grave.”

While agreeing to the need for representatives from the business community and higher education, she would prioritize parents and community members.

“We need more than number-crunchers. So often these boards are made up of people who don’t represent the large majority,” she said. The board should “look like the students it represents,” who are mostly black and Latino, with smaller minorities of whites and Asians.

“There should be economic diversity, too, because the conversation is not the same” without working-class people involved, Brooks said.

One likely point of contention as the new board is assembled, first by the nominating committee and then by Kenney, is likely to be about charter schools and policies regarding their expansion and oversight.

Some activists, including Lisa Haver of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, expressed concern that the news release announcing the nominating panel members did not specify all the charter connections among them. The release did state that two members, Stephanie Naidoff and Bonnie Camarda, are on the board of the Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP).

“I’m concerned that there’s two people on the panel who are currently on the board” of PSP, Haver said.

PSP has long been a flashpoint of controversy in the city. It has deep pockets, is partially funded through some common donors to the network of SuperPACs until recently run by Education Secretary Betsy Devos, and has long lobbied for the expansion of charter schools in Philadelphia.

Pritchett was on the board of LEAP Academy University Charter School in Camden when he was chancellor of the Rutgers-Camden campus. As an SRC member, he was among those who voted to close 23 District schools.

Another member of the panel is Barbara Moore Williams, a longtime District educator who is now an education consultant. She works with both school districts and charter schools, including Imhotep and West Philadelphia Achievement Charter, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Peterson, of the Mayor’s Office, said, “there was no agenda” on the part of the mayor’s staff in boiling down the profiles of the committee members, most of whom have long lists of civic and professional involvements, when their names were released.

The nominating committee meeting will be at 10 a.m. Friday in the Mayor’s Reception Room in City Hall, Room 202.