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Voters approve charter change that gives City Council more power over new school board

The change does not apply to nine members Kenney appointed this spring.

Mayor Kenney with new school board
Mayor Kenney introduced the new members of the Philadelphia Board of Education in April. Visible behind him are (from left) appointees Wayne Walker, Mallory Fix Lopez, Angela McIver, and Julia Danzy and City Council President Darrell Clarke. Photo by Dale Mezzacappa

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

Philadelphia voters approved a charter change Tuesday that gives City Council more power over the composition of the city’s new school board.

Ballot question No. 2 asked Philadelphians:

Shall the Educational Supplement to the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter be amended to restore local control by confirming the Board of Education’s independent responsibility to administer the School District of Philadelphia, providing for public participation in the Educational Nominating Panel process, revising eligibility requirements, requiring City Council confirmation of School Board appointments, requiring a stated reason for removing a School Board Member and establishing a Parent and Community Advisory Council?

The question’s first clause, about amending the charter “to restore local control,” is little more than a rhetorical distraction.

Local control has already been restored, and this vote will have no bearing on that development.

“It’s misleading, that first part of the question,” said Patrick Christmas, policy program manager for Committee of Seventy, a government watchdog group that supports the ballot measure. “Why it was drafted up that way, I can only speculate.”

Late last year, the state-controlled School Reform Commission (SRC) voted to dissolve. On July 1, the SRC will be replaced by a nine-person school board, whose members have already been appointed by Mayor Kenney.

When Kenney made those appointments, he was operating under rules established before the SRC came into existence. That’s because there was already language in the city’s charter about how to appoint a school board, and that language became the default.

Under the old rules, the mayor had sole authority for appointments and total discretion when removing board members.

Voters’ approval means City Council has a much bigger say in appointments and the mayor will have a tougher time yanking appointees that he or she doesn’t like.

The charter changes…

— Give City Council the ability to approve or reject any mayoral nominees to the local Board of Education. This would be essentially a confirmation process. Nominees would have a public hearing, after which Council would need to approve them by a majority vote. Right now, Council has no formal say in the nomination process. Christmas, with the Committee of Seventy, calls the charter change “reasonable” and says it makes sense for Council to exert some control when it sends over a billion dollars annually to local schools.

— Make it so the mayor couldn’t ax school board members without cause. Right now, board members “serve at the pleasure of the Mayor,” according to the city charter. The new language wouldn’t change that, but it would require the mayor to provide “reasons” for getting rid of a board member. Those reasons must “be stated with specificity and demonstrate the member’s unfitness to serve.” Kenney initially opposed this change, but ultimately signed the legislation enabling a ballot question on the topic.

— Require school board members to merely be residents of Philadelphia. Right now, board members must be “Philadelphia voters.”

— Require the nominating panel for the Board of Education to advertise board openings “at least to the same extent as the City is required to advertise invitations to bid on City contracts.” The nominating panel is tasked with giving the mayor a pool of names from which he or she picks the eventual appointees. This change would ask the panel to publicize its work through advertisements in local newspapers, specifically once a week for two weeks in “one of the three newspapers having the largest paid circulation in the City and in such other newspapers as it deems necessary.”

— Establish a “Parent and Community Advisory Council” that would meet with the school board twice a year.

The changes made Tuesday would apply to future appointees, not to the nine people Kenney has already chosen for his inaugural board. Those nine members are undergoing orientation right now and will assume their positions on July 1.

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