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Two commissioners leave fading SRC to seek spots on new Philly school board

Estelle Richman will chair the body for the rest of its term.

Feather Houstoun, Marjorie Neff, and William Hite.
Darryl Murphy

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

As Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission limps toward its demise, two of the remaining four members resigned Thursday in order to seek positions on the incoming school board that will take over July 1.

SRC Chair Joyce Wilkerson and Commissioner Christopher McGinley had to leave their posts before Mayor Kenney could appoint them to serve on the new, nine-member school board. Kenney has not yet made his final selections, but McGinley and Wilkerson are among 45 finalists.

Kenney must make his choices by April 5, next Thursday.

McGinley said in an interview that he is meeting with Kenney tomorrow, “but nothing was promised to me.” He added, “I’m willing to do it.”

Because Kenney initially appointed Wilkerson and McGinley to the SRC, he also gets to name their replacements, and he did so Thursday. They will be replaced by former SRC Chair Marjorie Neff and former District Chief Operating Officer Fran Burns.

In the same swoop, Pennsylvania’s Gov. Wolf promoted one of his appointees, Estelle Richman, to chair the School Reform Commission.

Absent an unexpected development, the SRC’s main task before June 30 is to approve a final budget for the 2018-19 school year, and its members will be required to appear before City Council to defend the budget’s priorities –although, presumably, newly appointed Board of Education members could also make their priorities known. The state-controlled SRC passed a lump sum budget at its last meeting.

“I’m happy to do something to help with the transition,” said Neff in an interview. Primarily, the interim body will be “making sure the District continues to run and anything that is typically dealt with during that time is handled efficiently. I don’t anticipate there will be anything of great controversy.”

The five-member commission was already operating short-handed after the resignation of Farah Jimenez last month. The SRC needs three voting members to pass resolutions, and the resignations of McGinley and Wilkerson would have left it one person short of the quorum needed to conduct business.

Burns and Neff, familiar faces on the local education scene, should allow the SRC to polish off whatever work remains over the next three months.

“In this time of transition from the SRC to the new Board of Education, it is important to have two voices on the SRC who are ready on day one. Marge Neff and Fran Burns need no introduction to the issues that face the School District of Philadelphia,” said Kenney in a statement.

Before serving as SRC chair, Neff was the longtime principal of Julia R. Masterman High School, one of the city’s most prestigious special admissions schools. Burns served as chief operating officer under Superintendent William Hite from 2013 to 2017 and now teaches at Villanova University.

“The School District has made great progress under Dr. Hite, and I am honored by Mayor Kenney’s appointment to serve during this important transition,” Burns said in a statement.

The SRC voted last year to dissolve itself under pressure from activists and politicians.

After nearly 17 years as the governing body of Pennsylvania’s largest school system, the commission will give way to a local school board appointed by Mayor Kenney.

A nominating panel has given Kenney the names of 45 candidates to consider for the new board.

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