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Kenney wants to ‘deliver’ on local control of schools through more investment, service coordination

He plans a new Office of Children and Families to better coordinate services and will pursue more aid for community college students.

Mayor Kenney takes the oath of office on a Bible held by his mother, Barbara. (Photo: Emma Lee/WHYY)

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

Updated with information about the appointment of Cynthia Figueroa as head of the Office of Children and Families.

Starting his second term on Monday, Mayor Kenney promised to continue increasing the city’s support for the School District, working to make Community College of Philadelphia more affordable, and coordinating city services better through a new Office of Children and Families.

“We must follow the rest of the civilized world and make the investments necessary to improve the quality of education available to all of our kids,” the mayor said. “This isn’t just the right thing to do; our city’s future depends on it. … It’s a new era, and we will not fail another generation of our kids.”

Kenney and City Council members took their oaths of office at the newly restored Met Philadelphia opera house, 858 N. Broad St. Among the four new Council members is education activist Kendra Brooks, who became the first person elected to Council outside the two major parties. She ran with the Working Families Party. The other new Council members are Democrats Jamie Gauthier, Katherine Gilmore Richardson, and Isaiah Thomas.

Kenney promised to expand his administration’s initiatives on universal pre-K, community schools, after-school programs, and behavioral health services for students.

“Over the next four years, we’ll continue growing our city-led PHLpreK, community schools and out-of-school time initiatives that have become lifelines for students and their families. We’ll drastically expand behavioral health supports across all schools,” he said.

“Building on this success, we will create a new Office of Children and Families and a Children and Families Cabinet charged with working across city departments to ensure that all policies, resources, and services for children and families are aligned, coordinated, and developed in close partnership with the School District of Philadelphia.”

Kenney has appointed Cynthia Figueroa, formerly the commissioner of the city’s Department of Human Services, as deputy mayor of the Office of Children and Families. The new office will combine the Department of Human Services, PHLpreK, community schools, and prevention support services.

He said that this increased coordination – as well as assuring that all school buildings are safe and modern – will “deliver on the promise of local control” that occurred when the city took back governance of the District from the state School Reform Commission. The SRC had run the District since 2001 after Harrisburg declared it financially and academically distressed. In 2017, the SRC voted to dissolve itself, and Kenney appointed nine members to a new Board of Education in April 2018.

This year, Board of Education members’ terms will end and Kenney will need to appoint members again. There is no expectation of a shakeup, but all appointments are not guaranteed. The mandated process starts with Kenney naming a committee that will recommend names to him.

Council President Darryl Clarke said his top priority would be attacking poverty, and he spoke in general terms about the need to “narrow the skills gap” through increased emphasis on adult education and job training.

He also called for the expansion of community schools, which is Kenney’s signature education initiative that brings social services into K-12 schools, including job training and adult education.

“This skills gap is one of the many issues associated with income inequality in Philadelphia,” Clarke said. “We must narrow that skills gap.”

Kenney recalled the years earlier in the 2010s, before he was mayor, when the District was so starved for funds that it cut counselors and nurses, scrimped on capital investments, and had “barely enough money to keep the lights on.” All this was the result of severe cuts in state education aid under the administration of former Gov. Tom Corbett.

Since then, the city has increased its investment in the School District, and state aid rose under Gov. Wolf, although not to the levels that the District said it needed. The funding also was not distributed according to a formula that the legislature devised that gave more weight to student poverty and other characteristics of a locality’s ability to support its schools. Only new state education aid is distributed according to the formula, amounting to about 7% of the total. If all of the aid were put through the formula, Philadelphia would receive hundreds of millions more.

Although the District has managed to balance its books, it still spends thousands less per student than many of the surrounding suburbs and faces a projected shortfall in 2022.

About half of Philadelphia high school graduates who attend college start at Community College of Philadelphia, which is becoming increasingly unaffordable due in large part to stagnating support for higher education from the state.

Kenney noted that Pell Grant money and other financial aid often don’t cover the full cost of college, resulting in many students dropping out without a degree. The mayor’s second-term report said that the city would explore last-dollar tuition models that fill in those gaps “based on eligibility criteria and funding availability.” The report noted that research showed that 56% of CCP students were food insecure, 56% housing insecure, and 19% homeless.

Kenney also set goals to reduce “unspeakable” gun violence that killed a record number of children last year and upended the lives of many families.

He wants to reduce shootings 25% by 2024 and promised more community-based policing and partnerships.

The city’s biggest challenges are rooted in “economic and racial inequality that have been building for decades,” Kenney said.

Brooks, a new council member, has promised to confront inequity by pushing such policies as ending the 10-year tax abatement for new development. This policy mostly benefits developers and has cost the School District tens of millions of dollars over the years; the District’s primary source of local funds is the property tax. The outgoing Council voted to phase out the abatement, starting in 2021.

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