Jimenez resigns from Philly SRC four months before it disbands

Philadelphia School Reform Commission member Farah Jiminez. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia School Reform Commission member Farah Jiminez. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Updated: 2:30 p.m.

With Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission about to sunset, one of its commissioners has bid an early adieu.

Farah Jimenez, a 2014 appointee of Gov. Tom Corbett, resigned from the commission Wednesday, effective immediately.

In her resignation letter to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, Jimenez praised her fellow commissioners and district superintendent William Hite.

“It has been a gift to bear close witness to the truest of public servants who work at the School District of Philadelphia, the School Reform Commission, and in each and every one of our schools,” Jimenez wrote.

The SRC has just a handful of scheduled meetings left before a local school board supplants it on July 1.

While admitting her resignation may seem abrupt, Jimenez said SRC and district staff knew she intended to leave before the summer. Jimenez said SRC chair Joyce Wilkerson told her a late-February resignation would not prevent the SRC from conducting business over the next four months.

Jimenez resigned to focus more on her day job as executive director of the Philadelphia Education Fund, which works with teachers and students to support college readiness and encourage high school completion.

“There’s not a bigger story than that,” she said.

The commission voted on a batch of new charter applications last Thursday, likely one of its last major actions before it disbands.

During that meeting, Jimenez and Commissioner Bill Green, a fellow Corbett appointee, repeatedly voted to approve new charter schools, but were out-flanked by the remaining three commissioners, all appointed by Democrats.

Jimenez has long been a conservative voice in mostly liberal spaces, mainly as a local nonprofit executive. She once led the People’s Emergency Center, a social services organization, and Mt. Airy USA, a community development group.

She currently heads the Philadelphia Education Fund (PEF), which provides programming for students and teachers.

Jimenez’s role at PEF — and her husband’s job at a law firm that represents several charter schools — prompted her to recuse herself from some SRC votes. Those recusals drew the ire of some activists, who questioned her ability to serve.

Jimenez did, however, participate in two of the most significant votes the SRC took over the past year. Last summer, she split with Green and joined her three Democrat-appointed colleagues in approving the new teachers’ contract, despite concerns it would lead to major tax hikes. In November, she abstained when the SRC voted to dissolve itself.

“Getting to a place of stability for our teachers was really important,” she said.

With the SRC about to disband and few major votes on the foreseeable horizon, Jimenez’s departure isn’t likely to have major political or logistical ramifications. She is not a candidate for the new local school board, unlike her colleagues Wilkerson and Christopher McGinley.

Superintendent Hite praised Jimenez’s service.

“Farah Jimenez has been a strong voice on the School Reform Commission over the last four years,” said Hite in a statement. “Her commitment as CEO of Philadelphia Education Fund has made a positive impact on students across Philadelphia. I want to extend my heartfelt thanks to her for her leadership and service to children, parents, and advocates in Philadelphia.”

When Jimenez arrived, the district was just emerging from a series of bruising budget battles and fiscal shortfalls.

She believes the district is in a more stable place today than it was when she entered, and credits much of that change to Hite and Wilkerson.

The new local school board, she thinks, will inherit a school system on the rise.

“They’re going to be walking into a very progressive and thoughtful district,” she said. “But they need to be aware there’s a hammer coming, and soon.”

That hammer is the district’s structural deficit, which could leave it $700 million in the red by fiscal year 2022.

“It can all be upended quickly without financial support. That’s really going to be the challenge for this new group,” Jimenez said.

The longtime GOP insider warned that solutions and support won’t likely come from Harrisburg.

“There’s going to be pressure on all of us to open up our own personal checkbooks,” she said.

As a commissioner, Jimenez focused on the district’s messaging and communications strategy, she said, in order to restore the system’s image and retain families.

She pushed the district to hire a chief of external relations, Kevin Geary. She also worked with district staff, she said, to focus more attention on the district’s successes.

“It may seem trite,” she said. “But that good work gets lost in lots and lots of stories about what’s not working. It’s hard to inspire families.”

Jimenez also helped change the speaker format at SRC meetings so that public commenters had to declare what topic they planned to address. The policy changes irked some long-time participants, but Jimenez said they were designed to make sure commissioners heard from a wider variety of constituents.

“If you were a divergent voice, you were drowned out,” she said.

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