Marjorie Neff and Feather Houstoun both announced their intention to resign from the five-member School Reform Commission Wednesday, speeding up the timetable for Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney to name their replacements.
Both of their terms were due to expire in January, along with that of Sylvia Simms. They both said they chose to resign sooner — Houstoun on Oct. 14 and Neff on Nov. 3 — so there would be a gradual change in the composition of the decision-making body instead of an abrupt upheaval.
“Critical votes start to happen in January, and there needs to be time for people to transition,” Neff said in an interview. “That’s why I thought it was important to tender my resignation a little early. It gives someone time to get oriented before January.”
Houstoun echoed that: “I had come to the conclusion … that having a total change of SRC members in January was not as good an approach as having overlap in a transition period.”
Houstoun also cited a desire to spend more time with family.
The resignations come as questions escalate over whether the SRC, a joint state-city panel that was put in charge of the school district 15 years ago, is fulfilling its mandate or should be abolished in favor of a return to local control.
That option was pushed by Philadelphia Council President Darrell Clarke who, in his response to the resignations, called the SRC “unaccountable to those it purports to serve as well as to one of its primary funders: the City of Philadelphia.” The SRC, like the mayorally appointed, nine-member Board of Education before it, has no taxing power of its own, but must rely on city and state lawmakers for most of its revenue.
State control of the district has been a “failed experiment,” Clarke said. “The commissioners’ decision to resign ahead of the expiration of their terms should be viewed as an opportunity to restart a conversation … about how to help the commonwealth’s largest public school district make meaningful progress.”
Under the agreement worked out at the time by Gov. Tom Ridge and Mayor John Street, three SRC members and the chair are appointed by the governor and two members by the mayor.
‘Time for a fresh start’
Councilwoman Helen Gym, elected largely on the strength of her education activism, also called for the abolition of the SRC.
While praising the service and dedication of Neff and Houstoun, she said, “It’s time for a fresh start. Philadelphia wants what every other one of Pennsylvania’s 499 school districts has — local control of our schools.”
Short of that, she said, the SRC needs “responsible and responsive leaders who will … establish a clear equity agenda for a school district that Harrisburg has neglected for far too long.”
She called for the remaining SRC commissioners — Farah Jimenez, Simms and Green — to “step down and open the door to a renewed focus on the revitalization of our public school system.”
Some activists and organizers called for Kenney and Wolf to have an “open process” for choosing replacements, while others urged them to appoint members who believe that the body should be abolished.
Kenney and Wolf said they have been vetting potential replacements. Wolf’s appointee, who will succeed Houstoun, will need to be confirmed by the Legislature, which could delay bringing the body up to its full complement. Kenney’s replacement for Neff can take office immediately after being named.
“The governor will choose an individual who shares his commitment to public education and his vision for greater investment in our children and our schools,” according to a statement released by Wolf spokesman, Jeffrey Sheridan. During the gubernatorial campaign in 2014, Wolf said he thought Philadelphia’s schools should be returned to local control.
Kenney said that he would make an appointment “in the coming weeks. I believe that any future commissioner must be fiercely dedicated to making the SRC a highly functioning governing body that strengthens our schools, and supports our students and educators.”
During his mayoral campaign, Kenney said that the district’s funding needed to be stabilized before any consideration of replacing the SRC and returning to local control. In some statements he has suggested that abolishing the SRC would incur the wrath of Harrisburg Republicans.
Houstoun, who spent a good deal of her career in state government, expressed caution about abolishing the SRC, saying it has been “critical in achieving credibility and confidence in Harrisburg. That has to be calculated.”
She also said that what is more important than the governance structure is “who is making the appointees, and what kind of instructions they are giving the appointees. Any form [of governance] can go bad, and any can work well if people…are doing the right things.”
The state takeover and transfer of power over the District was justified by the Republicans in power in Harrisburg as necessary to improve the its financial health and academic performance.
Instead, said Clarke, “For too long, our most challenged students have been held to testing standards they have little hope of meeting given the deprivation of resources caused by state funding cuts.”
A tumultuous tenure
Under the SRC’s control, the district has faced some of its worst budget crises ever, especially after former Gov. Tom Corbett, also a Republican, slashed state and federal aid in 2011. Critics say the takeover hasn’t improved the district’s financial outlook or prompted the General Assembly to seriously consider the district’s special financial needs — among them, its high concentration of poverty and huge numbers of English learners — when allocating state aid.
The Legislature did recently approve a new funding formula that takes those factors into account, although the vast majority of state aid is not run through the new rubric.
Both Democrats, Kenney and Wolf could upend the political and philosophical balance of the SRC with their appointees. Both received support from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which has been working without a contract for four years.
Houstoun, a longtime public servant in both New Jersey and Pennsylvania and former head of the William Penn Foundation, spent just under five years on the board. A Republican, she was appointed by Corbett. Neff, who has been on the SRC for less than two years, was appointed by former mayor Michael Nutter and named as chair by Wolf to replace former City Councilman Bill Green.
Green, a Democrat also appointed by Corbett as chair, resigned his City Council seat to take the SRC chairmanship, and is now suing to get it back. Under the takeover law, the governor has the right to appoint the chair — and that person can be an individual originally appointed by the mayor.
It’s unclear who will fill the shoes of Houstoun and Neff shoes or whether there’s a pool of willing applicants. SRC members are unpaid and work 20 hours a week or more. They’re also tasked with making tough decisions in front of hostile crowds.
“It was hard work and it was unpleasant work because we had to make a lot of very difficult decisions to stabilize the district,” said Houstoun of her time on the commission. “Just having gotten through this and being stronger for it is something to be happy that I was able to be part of.”
She said that her most gratifying moment in her five-year tenure was the fervor shown by local families and neighborhood members in urging the SRC to keep open the EM Stanton Elementary School in South Philadelphia, which had been one of 37 schools designated for closing under a massive 2012 downsizing. It was primarily targeted because the old building was in disrepair, she recalled.
“The campaign of the families and children to save that school was so wonderful and uplifting, it was one of those cases where it became absolutely clear that buildings were important, but when you have such a jewel of great programming, community support, great leadership and teachers, we can’t do harm [to that],” she said.
Neff, a longtime district principal whose tenure has been much shorter than Houstoun’s, said visiting schools was the high point of her experience.
“For whatever ills the school district has that are big and systemic, the assets we have are the people who work in the schools and the children and families we serve,” she said.
Jimenez said that while she was sad to see Neff and Houstoun go, it “has been an honor to serve alongside them.”
Here is the text of the district’s statement:
School Reform Commission (SRC) Chair Marge Neff and Commissioner Feather Houstoun today submitted resignation letters to Mayor Jim Kenney and Governor Tom Wolf respectively.
Chair Neff was appointed as a member of the SRC by former Mayor Michael Nutter in July 2014 to complete the term of former Commissioner Wendell Pritchett. She was named Chair by Governor Wolf in March of 2015. Neff’s resignation will be effective on November 3 and she will serve as chair until that day. Her replacement will be named by Mayor Jim Kenney.
Commissioner Houstoun served on the SRC for nearly six years, appointed in December 2011 by Governor Tom Corbett. Her resignation will be effective on October 14 and her replacement will be named by Governor Tom Wolf. Both Neff and Houstoun had terms that were set to expire in January 2017.
In her comments, Marge Neff stated, “During my time on the SRC, I have faced many new challenges and learned a great deal. My experience as a Commissioner has also strengthened my longstanding belief that the School District of Philadelphia is filled with dedicated and talented teachers, principals, and staff, all of whom are committed to providing the best possible education for our children. I marvel at the courage and commitment of those children and their families. It has been an honor to serve them.”
Feather Houstoun commented on her time on the SRC, “when I joined the SRC in December 2011, the School District was leaderless, traumatized by months of controversy and cost cutting, and still facing additional cuts in order just to make payroll. Unfortunately, additional, and even more painful cuts were necessary. Today, after a series of difficult decisions by strong leaders, I am more hopeful for the future of the School District of Philadelphia, their children, families, teachers, staff and leadership than I have ever been. While work remains to achieve both the funding levels our schools need and the educational progress our children deserve, the School District of Philadelphia is on the right track.”
Dr. William R. Hite, Superintendent of The School District of Philadelphia commended both Neff and Houston for their service, their work, leadership, and commitment to the children and families of Philadelphia. .
“Few people leave behind the educational legacy and positive impact on our city like Marge Neff,” said Dr. Hite. “For nearly 40 years she has put the children of Philadelphia first. Our children, our schools and our city are all better because of the lifetime of work, sacrifice and leadership of Marge Neff. She began her educational career as a middle school teacher, taught children with learning disabilities, became Principal at Powell Elementary and then was named Principal at the Masterman School where under her leadership, Masterman was named a National Blue Ribbon School. Marge Neff provided stability and leadership to the Student Reform Commission and the School District of Philadelphia during some of our most challenging times and I thank her for all that she has done.”
“Feather Houstoun has been a SRC Commissioner during my entire tenure as Superintendent and she will be missed,” said Hite. “She has brought tremendous passion and a lifetime of experience to the SRC. One of the reasons the School District has started this school year in such a strong position is due to her leadership during difficult times. Her financial background, her experience in state and local government and knowledge of large government were invaluable when we were forced to make difficult budget cuts and throughout her tenure. I thank her for her nearly six years of leadership and service to the children and parents of Philadelphia.”
Mayor Kenney’s statement:
“Chair Neff and Commissioner Houstoun have dutifully served the children and families of Philadelphia, and I truly appreciate their commitment to public education. Commissioner Houstoun’s financial acumen and Chair Neff’s educator eye were critical in helping to stabilize the District after recent challenging years.
“I am currently having conversations with potential candidates to succeed Chair Neff and will make an appointment in the coming weeks. I believe that any future Commissioner must be fiercely dedicated to making the SRC a highly-functioning governing body that strengthens our schools, and supports our students and educators.”
Council President Clarke’s statement:
“I am grateful to SRC Chair Neff and Commissioner Houstoun for stepping up to an enormous challenge in service to our children and City. We might not have always agreed on votes or issues, but their commitment to public school students cannot be denied.
“The commissioners’ decision to resign ahead of the expiration of their terms should be viewed as an opportunity to restart a conversation within our City and with leaders in Harrisburg about how to help the Commonwealth’s largest public school district make meaningful progress. I have long believed that this conversation must begin with consensus around the fact that state control of the School District of Philadelphia has been a failed experiment with severe consequences for all Pennsylvanians. And in May of 2015, Philadelphians overwhelmingly voted for a referendum calling for the dissolution of the SRC and restoration of local control.
“The SRC as designed by state lawmakers 15 years ago is unaccountable to those it purports to serve as well as to one of its primary funders: the City of Philadelphia. This is a contradiction wrapped in a riddle wrapped in a jumble of red tape that the General Assembly alone is authorized to resolve. For too long, our most challenged students have been held to testing standards they have little hope of meeting given the deprivation of resources caused by state funding cuts. The SRC simultaneously answers to our Mayor and Governor while owing neither real accountability. This absurdity has come at the expense of our children, families, and hard-working educators who have not had a contract for four years.
“It’s time to restart a meaningful discussion about next steps for the SRC and School District. I look forward to engaging with District leaders, educators and staff; the Kenney Administration; the Wolf Administration; leaders of the General Assembly; and other stakeholders to find a rational, achievable solution that will benefit students, taxpayers, and the Commonwealth.”
Councilwoman Helen Gym’s statement:
“Marjorie Neff and Feather Houstoun have worked admirably on behalf of our children. I thank them for their years of dedicated public service on the School Reform Commission.
It’s time for a fresh start. Philadelphia wants what every other one of Pennsylvania’s 499 school districts has: local control of our schools.
Short of meeting this fundamental goal, we need a group of responsible and responsive leaders who will uphold the public trust, reflect the diverse voices of public school communities, and establish a clear equity agenda for a school district that Harrisburg has neglected for far too long.
As Commissioners Neff and Houstoun move on, we must recognize that the SRC they leave behind is deeply flawed. None of the remaining commissioners was appointed by the current mayor or governor. They have been roundly critiqued for operating without transparency and they have failed to uphold the District’s central responsibility to provide essential staffing and resources. Like their fellow state-takeover agency, the Philadelphia Parking Authority, the SRC too often operates in an opaque bubble, sealed off from public accountability.
We must start over. The remaining SRC commissioners should step down and open the door to a renewed focus on the revitalization of our public school system and a heightened level of accountability to the people of Philadelphia.”
Statements from organizing and advocacy groups in the city:
Statement from Bryan Mercer, steering committee member of 215 People’s Alliance and director of Media Mobilizing Project:
“On May 19, 2015, the majority of Philadelphians voted to abolish the School Reform Commission. Now, with two openings on the School Reform Commission, we can change how the schools are governed in Philadelphia.
Our students and all Philadelphians deserve to govern our own schools, and raise up our next generation of leaders. The Our City Our Schools coalition calls on Governor Wolf and Mayor Kenney to appoint new members to the SRC who will abolish the SRC once and for all, and pave the way for local decision making power over our schools. Philadelphia deserves local control just like every city and town in the state of Pennsylvania. Abolishing the SRC is the first step.”
Statement from Minister Rodney Muhammad, president of the Philadelphia NAACP:
“As school takeover agents resign, it’s time for us to reinstate our energy toward self school governance. We must control the schools where our children go!”
Statement from Kendra Brooks, a leader with Parents United for Public Education:
“As a parent organizer I’ve seen the School Reform Commission time and time again make decisions without real parent and community engagement. They’ve pushed ahead with turning schools over to charters without our consent. We need local and democratic control of our schools. Time for the Mayor and the Governor to step up.”
Statement from Ron Whitehorne, retired teacher and steering committee member of 215 People’s Alliance:
“The state-run School Reform Commission is a failed experiment in education in Philadelphia. The School Reform Commission cancelled the teacher’s contract, a contract that provided valuable protection for our students. The SRC has refused to negotiate with the PFT in good faith.
Fairness for our teachers is in everyone’s interest, especially our school children. That’s why we need our schools to be locally controlled. We need our schools to be governed by people that want to bring together parents, teachers, principals and community members to make the best decisions for our public schools and for the teachers that work day in and day out in our schools.”
The Our City Our Schools coalition is made up of community, student and labor organizations working to abolish the School Reform Commission and return the Philadelphia schools to local control.
Statement from the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools:
Members of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools are calling on Mayor Kenney, Governor Wolf, and the PA State Senate to make the process for filling the newly vacant seats on the School Reform Commission an open one in which members of the public have an opportunity to weigh in on those who decide the future of our schools and our communities.
“The SRC has failed to represent the best interests of the students, parents and community members of Philadelphia,” said Lisa Haver, co-founder of the Alliance. “The mayor and the governor must nominate people who will end the pro-privatization agenda which has devastated the district over the past fifteen years.”
The SRC is an appointed body which controls a $2.6 billion annual budget. The State Senate must approve any nomination made by Governor Wolf. Those hearings have not allowed for public testimony in the past. Although not required, the Mayor could hold hearings on his choices to fill the SRC vacancies.
“Unlike those in other Pennsylvania districts, the people of Philadelphia continue to be disenfranchised when it comes to choosing the people who run our schools,” Haver said. “The least our elected officials can do now is to provide an opportunity for us to participate in the nomination process.”