This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The mayor’s education nominating panel, charged with recommending candidates to serve on the Board of Education, met for the first time Friday to elect officers and set rules of procedure.
Wendell Pritchett, a former member and acting chair of the School Reform Commission, was elected chair. Jamie Gauthier, executive director of the Fairmount Park Conservatory and mother of two public school students, was elected vice-chair. Bonnie Camarda, divisional director for the Salvation Army and board member of Nueva Esperanza, was elected secretary.
The session, held in the Mayor’s Reception Room at City Hall, was billed as open to the public. But it appeared that decisions had been made in advance – the votes on officers were taken quickly and without discussion as the 13 members sat in a semicircle facing away from those who attended.
Several education activists are arguing that the state Sunshine Act requires the panel to hold all its meetings in public, and they were not happy about how the first meeting went.
“From all appearances, the panel met in private before the public meeting,” said Lisa Haver, co-founder of the SRC watchdog Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools. “Wendell Pritchett, who conducted the meeting, was elected chair in the first minutes. … There was no roll call. The panel sat with its backs to the members of the public who attended.”
Before they filed into the room and took the short and unanimous series of votes, a member of the mayor’s communications team could be heard saying that the members were simply having coffee in another room.
Later, in an email, Sarah Peterson, the director of communications for the Mayor’s Office of Education, explained that the votes were so quick because Kenney had already decided who the leaders would be. “No executive session preceded today’s meeting. The Mayor had previously made clear to the members that he would like Wendell as Chair, Jamie as Vice Chair, and Bonnie as Secretary.”
According to the Mayor’s Office, the group’s future deliberations will all occur in private executive sessions. The panel will meet in public only once more, when it votes on the names it will submit to Mayor Kenney.
Ethical, legal responsibilities
On Friday, after selecting its officers, the panel heard a series of presentations from city staffers on their responsibilities, legal and ethics requirements, and the timeline for the whole process.
The panel will accept new online applications for board members through Jan. 31. Panelists will interview applicants during February, and by the end of the month, the panel must have a final list of 27 candidates that the mayor will choose from. That is unless the mayor decides not to choose from that list at all, in which case the panel will have 10 days to put together a brand-new list.
Kenney’s charge is to assemble a nine-member school board to take over governance of the District from the SRC on July 1. His office has said he will do that by the end of March.
Candidates for the board must be registered voters in the city, citizens of the state, “of good moral character,” at least 18 years of age, and residents of Philadelphia for at least one year, according to City Solicitor Sozi Tulante, who presented at the meeting.
Candidates will be ineligible for appointment to the board if they hold any office or position of profit under city government — excluding contracts — are employed by the District, hold certain types of public office listed in state law, serve on the board of trustees of a charter school in the city, are currently serving a term on the SRC, have already served on the Board of Education for three terms, or have been removed from public office for malfeasance. However, candidates have the option of resigning from a position that would otherwise disqualify them.
Otis Hackney, chief education officer for the city, outlined the duties of the future board, which are identical to those of the SRC: overseeing District spending, awarding contracts, hiring the superintendent, adopting annual budgets, and authorizing/renewing charter schools. Like the SRC, the board will lack its own taxing authority.
Hackney also presented the results of a community survey that has 2,200 respondents so far. Overall, respondents said the board should prioritize:
1. Improving school climate.
2. Investing in music and arts curriculum.
3. Increasing literacy levels by 4th grade.
4. Adding additional social services.
5. Maintaining and improving building facilities.
6. Offering more supports and training for educators.
Respondents said that when choosing candidates, the nominating panel should prioritize:
1. Demonstration of strong ethics and integrity.
2. Commitment to public education.
3. Past experience as an educator of K-12 students.
4. Qualifications and background of candidates.
5. Representation of various neighborhoods.
6. Diversity as it relates to race, ethnicity, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation, and age.
Ellen Kaplan, chief integrity officer for the Mayor’s Office, made a presentation on the ethics requirements of panel members.
“This process is going to be looked at very carefully,” she said. “It must be beyond reproach, carried out to the highest ethical standards.”
“These seats are coveted positions. Some of you may have already received phone calls and resumes,” Kaplan said to nodding panelists. “Our suggestion is to say: Thank you for your interest, and here’s the application to submit your name to the regular process. … Somebody may even offer to buy you lunch, or offer a gift, or give you a seat on a board — I think it’s pretty obvious that you can’t accept that.”
At the request of the Mayor’s Office, the city’s Board of Ethics will issue a formal, written ruling on the ethics requirements of the panelists next week.
The mayor’s chief of staff, Jane Slusser, explained the panel’s role once the new school board is chosen: It would reconvene when there are vacancies and go through this nominating process again.
She also explained that despite collecting more than 100 applications so far, the panelists are still asked to personally “recruit” new candidates, with Slusser going so far as to recommend sending out email blasts to their personal contacts.
“We’re obviously not just looking at people’s professional experience, but also their personal experiences,” Slusser said. “You are free to recruit people however you see fit,” so long as they aren’t giving gifts in the process.
The panelists will clearly be walking a fine line –during the earlier ethics portion of the presentations, they were told it would be a conflict of interest to make decisions on nominees they knew personally.
“If they can recruit people, aren’t those people they already know?” asked a parent in the audience, who did not want to give her name or school. “My feeling is that if the nominating panel can nominate people that they know, there will be bias and they will lean towards that person. … I just don’t see the fairness in that.”
Slusser explained that the role of recruitment is part of the 1999 charter that created the school board before the District was taken over by the SRC.
She recommended that “anybody with a personal relationship or professional relationship with a member would recuse themselves from interviewing that person or ranking that person… but I’ll leave that to the nominating panel.”
Said Pritchett: “I see the nominating panel nodding in agreement” to Slusser’s statement.
But then he outlined what seemed to be less stringent requirements for recusal. When Gauthier asked whether Slusser’s recommendation applied to anyone they knew, he said:
“No, I think it’s if we nominated them or have a close personal or professional relationship.”
Nominating panel member Barbara Moore-Williams, a longtime Philadelphia educator and now a consultant, asked: “As we discuss people, we can share what we know, but at the end, for the vote, we would recuse ourselves?”
Pritchett confirmed that is how it would work. This seemed to leave out the recusals during the interview and ranking process that Slusser suggested — the recusals that panelists initially nodded their heads to.
Concern about transparency
The issue of transparency has been central for the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools (APPS). APPS members sued the SRC in 2014 for violating the state’s Sunshine Act, which sets rules for the conduct of government business, and won a settlement that reshaped the way the SRC dealt with transparency — although APPS is quick to point out that it’s a settlement they feel has not been consistently honored. For instance, the SRC often posts full descriptions of SRC resolutions after they have been voted on instead of in advance.
“The [nominating] panel is convened under the rules of the City Charter,” Haver said. “They are not an advisory panel. They are charged with selecting candidates for public office. They are city officials and were addressed as such by members of the Mayor’s Office.
“As such, all of their meetings, including any committee meetings, must follow the provisions of the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act. Selection of candidates and any deliberation about candidates, for this panel, is official action.”
The Mayor’s Office disagrees with this interpretation of the Sunshine Act.
“We appreciate the Alliance’s understandable desire to conduct as much public business as practicable in public,” Peterson said in a statement. “But the Alliance’s reading of the Sunshine Act is far from complete.”
She cited a section of the act that allows for deliberations involving political appointments to be conducted in closed-door executive sessions.
“A candid discussion about the strength and weaknesses of potentially hundreds of possible candidates cannot effectively be conducted in public,” she said. “It is also very likely that candidates will be more forthcoming about potential issues or conflicts of interest in private discussions.”
Haver suggested that her organization is considering further action.
“APPS members have not fought against the lack of transparency by the SRC only to sit by and watch another board conduct its business in the same manner. We will be addressing our concerns to the panel and to the mayor in the coming days,” she said.