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Mayor requests more candidates for school board

Kenney told the nominating panel that he wants more diversity on the new list of at least 18 people. He's not ruling out making his choices from the first group of 27 names, however.

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

Note: This story has been updated.

Seeking more parents, educators, and overall diversity, Mayor Kenney is asking the Education Nominating Panel for at least 18 more names to consider when he appoints the new Board of Education.

In a letter to the panel, Kenney said that he was “impressed” with the 27 names that the panel had submitted to him last month and that he may yet choose the nine-member board from that list.

“In appointing Board of Education members, I must consider the candidates as individuals as well as how they would fit into the overall makeup of the Board,” Kenney wrote. The first list “includes a sufficient group of individuals with professional and governmental experience. For the second list, I request that the Panel submit a diverse pool that more strongly represents parents and current or former primary- or secondary-level educators. As we review the overall makeup of the appointments, it is important that the members represent all Philadelphians.”

For instance, the first list of 27 included only two black males, something that raised concern among key city constituencies, according to an article in the Philadelphia Tribune. Bilal Qayyum, a longtime city activist who promotes fatherhood among black and Latino men, told the Tribune that the panel was sending a “negative message” with its list of choices.

“Black males have always been, and still are, in the city of Philadelphia and across the country — we’re always second and third,” Qayyum told the Tribune.

After submitting the first list, panel chair Wendell Pritchett said that he was confident in the choices but had wished for more diversity, even though more than 500 people applied or were nominated by others. Asked specifically where he thought diversity was lacking, he mentioned certain neighborhoods, including North Philadelphia.

Pritchett said that panel members had interviewed 80 people.

Asked then about the possibility that the mayor would ask for more names, Pritchett said that there were many well-qualified candidates among those 80 who didn’t make the cut. Pritchett was out of state yesterday, but Jane Slusser, Kenney’s chief of staff, said the additional candidates, between 18 and 27, will be chosen from the existing pool. The panel will not accept new nominations.

Slusser said the mayor is asking for more names because he wanted “more flexibility” to make sure he is establishing the best possible group. The new board will have “a huge responsibility for the future of the city,” Slusser said.

Many of the names on the original list were relative unknowns, Slusser said, and it is also important to make sure that those chosen “can work well together,” she said.

Kenney has a difficult task in crafting a new board, which will return the School District to local control after nearly 17 years under the state-dominated School Reform Commission. Criteria to consider include passing muster with myriad interest groups, reflecting the demographic diversity of the city, containing the needed expertise, and being representative of the District’s major constituencies, parents, and educators. He also has to consider the wishes of City Council.

Council will not have to confirm this round of nominees because the City Charter must be amended first, and that will not happen before a deadline.

However, Council will have input into the choices.

Under the old Board of Education, there was an informal but fairly rigid system that assured seats for each of several ethnic groups, including Italians, Jews, Irish, and African Americans. In the last two decades, the city’s demographics have shifted markedly. Now Latinos and Asians are major constituent groups, while some of the others have faded in the city’s landscape of ethnic politics.

The coalition Our City Our Schools put forward a slate of potential candidates that called itself the People’s School Board. It was made up of almost all parents. Most were black or Latino.

From that group, one person, Kendra Brooks, became a member of the nominating panel and one other, Tonya Bah, was among the 27 names submitted.

After yesterday’s request, the group issued a statement attributed to Julien Terrell, executive director of the Philadelphia Student Union: “We believe the process in establishing the new school board will be a model for how future boards will be decided. This is why inclusion of voices that are most impacted by education policy need to be centered. We need to expand what we consider to be expertise and prioritize the voices of students, parents and educators who have an intimate understanding of how the education system in Philadelphia operates and what solutions are critical to a transformative educational experience.”

The panel will hold a public meeting by March 18 to submit its new list of 18 to 27 candidates, after which Kenney will have 20 more days to name his nine choices for the board.

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