This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
After topping the Democratic slate of City Council candidates in last week’s primary by a record margin –40,000 more votes than her nearest competitor – Helen Gym is in a position to expand her power on Council as a committee chairperson.
In an unprecedented field of 30 candidates for five at-large seats, Gym received 106,000 votes. The second-highest vote count was 65,000 for Council member Allan Domb, whose campaign spending was triple the amount Gym spent.
Longtime Council member Jannie Blackwell’s primary loss leaves open the top leadership position on two key committees, Education and Finance. Gym, who is seeking her second term, launched her political career as an education advocate. As a lawmaker, she has continued to champion the needs of the Philadelphia School District and its students.
Committee chairs are appointed by the Council president. The City Council that is seated after the November election will choose the Council president. The current president is Darrell Clarke, who represents the Fourth District in North Philadelphia. As the composition of Council changes, it’s hard to predict whether he would be re-elected.
Consequently, the chances that Gym will be tapped to head the Education or Finance Committee, or both, are subject to several “ifs.”
Gym said she earned the most votes of any City Council candidate “in decades” and called this “a mandate for real movement-building, centered in justice and equity.”
Many education activists see Gym’s resounding victory as a call for City Council to be more aggressive in influencing the District’s priorities and direction. Its official role in that area is limited by the City Charter.
Stan Shapiro, a former legal counsel to City Council and co-founder of the progressive advocacy group Neighborhood Networks, said that if Gym were Education Committee chair, she could up the ante significantly through “investigatory power, including the power to issue subpoenas, to get under the hood of how the District operates and subject it to public review.”
“We’re almost trained to be cynical about politics, especially when it comes to the state of our public schools,” Gym wrote in an email. “That’s why over the last four years, I tried to show that we can take great strides by actually listening to school communities and organizing – even if we can’t fix everything. We’ve had some big wins over the past four years — nurses and counselors, social workers, clean water hydration stations, music programs, air conditioning and more — and we’ve got more work ahead.”
Gym said her priorities next term would be supporting public schools through modernizing facilities and ending the 10-year tax abatement, which reduces the amount of local tax dollars available to the School District by tens of millions each year.
Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, is a leading supporter and ally of Gym’s. He called her “very talented” and said her record sets her up as an “example” of an ideal public servant.
“Helen’s victory was really a victory for all the citizens of the city of Philadelphia,” said Jordan.
He favors Gym to chair the Education Committee.
“Helen was a teacher in the School District, so she knows education and she knows it well,” Jordan said.
That committee’s legislative power has its limits. A clause in the city’s Home Rule Charter states that it can’t, for instance, mandate School District policy. That function is reserved for the Board of Education, appointed by the mayor.
But the Education Committee’s clout lies in the chair’s ability to host public hearings. Gym has held hearings on the District’s needs even without that position, however, focusing the testimony on a preferred set of priorities. If she chaired the committee, the District would likely be in for more Council scrutiny and more hearings.
Other committees have authority over specific aspects of public institutions, including the School District. In her first term, Gym’s legislative efforts regarding education have progressed through other committees. The mandate for the District to install at least three filtered water fountains in every school was moved through the Committee on Licenses and Inspections. And Gym used the Health Committee to pass a bill to mandate that the District regularly conduct a transparent program of lead paint stabilization.
Gym applauded the Education Committee’s work under Blackwell over the last term, when it held more public hearings than ever before. But she would go further.
“I think we ought to have regular evening sessions. I generally think committees ought to meet more frequently with more public comment,” Gym said. “I’d like to see more hearings go out into the community and expand the budget process so it can be more participatory for the public. We’d also benefit from expanding our capacity for data analysis. … We should be exploring how we can do more to systematically assess programs and issues in our schools.”
The Council committee that has the most authority over the School District is the Finance Committee, where Blackwell also will be leaving her leadership position. Finance must pass every bill that proposes to send additional revenue to the schools. Several such bills have not yet had a vote, and some not even a hearing, including Gym’s package of bills that would curtail the 10-year tax abatement, Councilwoman Cindy Bass’ bill to end the abatement, real-estate tax amnesty, and a bill to reclaim the Philadelphia Parking Authority from the state. All would send some revenue to the District.
And then there’s the annual ritual of enacting taxes to send to the District. The Board of Education does not have its own taxing authority, and the District frequently seeks additional dollars from the city that could be fulfilled by raising taxes. But Council has been reluctant to increase property tax rates, the District’s largest and most stable source of city funds. For instance, last year, Council rejected Mayor Kenney’s proposal to raise property tax rates by 6 percent for the schools to help ease an anticipated funding shortfall in 2022. Instead, it cobbled together other sources to meet only part of the District’s request.
Shapiro, whose advocacy group endorsed and campaigned for a slate of at-large candidates that included Gym, said one area where she could be influential could be “to move the District into a more aggressive posture relating to charter schools and their expansion.”
Gym’s vote total, he said, was “a spectacular showing of the popularity of a politician who focuses all her time and attention on things that matter to real people, particularly those who are at the bottom rung of the economic, political and social ladders.”
Though she did not mention using the committee’s investigative powers, Gym had a long list of potential improvements for the relationship between the Education Committee and the School District.
“The District’s major issues around [Human Resources], which includes full and adequate staffing, vacancies, [teacher] turnover and leveling, have not been addressed enough by us,” Gym said. “Ten years after a historic civil rights settlement [as a result of ethnic violence] at South Philadelphia High, we need to renew our review of the District’s bullying and harassment policies and protocols. I would encourage the board to keep close track of and pay attention to bills moving through City Council that have financial impact on the district.
“And we need to build a bigger and more common agenda around new school investments, particularly school repairs and modernization.”
City Council member Helen Gym speaks outside School District headquarters in November 2017 at a rally celebrating the end of the former School Reform Commission. (Photo: Greg Windle)
Jessica Way is an organizer with the Working Educators Caucus who teaches at Franklin Learning Center. She sees Gym’s win as a mandate for policies that strengthen public schools and institutions that benefit working people.
“The public clearly wants more progressive candidates, and those with a strong commitment to public education rose to the top,” Way said. “When Democrats commit to economic policy that has a real impact on people, like fair workweek policies, people believe that it is possible for the government to make changes that will have a tangible effect on their lives.”
Gym successfully moved Fair Workweek legislation that requires employers to make any changes to employees’ schedules more than two weeks in advance.
Way said that Council often points to the School District’s balanced budget — the product of economies and fiscal management and not necessarily an indicator of what the system actually needs — as an excuse not to give the schools more funds.
“From building conditions to staffing, our schools have been starved by years of policy that didn’t start by asking the most important question: How much funding do we actually need to be successful?” Way said. “We need someone who makes a point of jumping into local concerns at our neighborhood schools and effectively lifting them up.”
Shapiro said he would like to see Gym as chair of the Finance Committee.
“She would undoubtedly apply her commitment to justice to her evaluation of the pluses and minuses of the existing tax code,” Shapiro said. “There are a variety of ways that it could be made more progressive.”
To get on the Finance Committee, Gym would have to strike a deal with whoever becomes the next Council president during negotiations in December. Gym has clashed with Clarke in the past, but also successfully worked with his office. When Gym’s Fair Work Week bill was moving through Council, she was able to secure Clarke’s support by supporting a construction tax bill that he wanted (though that bill was ultimately replaced by a proposal from the mayor).
A source in Council said that given the number of races that are expected to be competitive in the general election – an unusual situation for Philadelphia, where most of the competition takes place within the Democratic primary – it’s hard to predict who the Council president or committee chairs will be.
This year, Republican Brian O’Neill will face a strong challenge from Democrat Judy Moore, which may flip the 10th District in the Far Northeast. Meanwhile, District Six in the Northeast may flip the other way. Democrat Bobby Henon – indicted on federal corruption charges earlier this year – could lose to Republican challenger Pete Smith.
Although the five nominated at-large Democratic Council members are a lock in the general election, the two minority seats now held by Republicans are anyone’s game. They will face a small set of progressive challengers running as independents, with support from many of the local grassroots organizations that endorsed newly nominated at-large Democratic Council candidate Isaiah Thomas and also worked to reelect Gym.
In the internecine world of City Council, Clarke’s faction has shrunk with Blackwell’s loss and the retirement of at-large Councilman William Greenlee. In 2015, Henon and Curtis Jones unsuccessfully challenged Clarke for leadership.
Way pointed out that several funding proposals put forth by progressive organizations, including ending the new-construction tax abatement and requiring Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOTs) from large nonprofits, including universities and hospitals, could raise money for city schools without raising property or sales taxes.
“We want someone with a commitment” to enact those ideas, she said, referring to the funding proposals advocated by the Our City Our Schools Coalition. “We also need someone who isn’t afraid to say that the financial situation in our School District is not acceptable.”
“Leaders speak about a coming fiscal crisis in our district. What they don’t mention is that our schools are still running on austerity budgets now,” she said. “We still haven’t recovered from the cuts [imposed by former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett in 2011], and we need someone to head the Finance Committee who not only sees this problem, but works aggressively to fix the situation.
“People are tired of piecemeal legislation and small advances towards a government that takes care of its citizens. It is time for bigger ideas. It is time for rapid change.”
Full disclosure: Helen Gym was involved in founding the Notebook in 1994.