Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney named Joyce Wilkerson, John Street’s former chief of staff, to the School Reform Commission on Thursday.
Quickly therafter, Governor Tom Wolf appointed Wilkerson chair of the five-member commission, meaning she’ll play a key role in shaping the future of the city’s school system.
Wilkerson replaces departing SRC chair Marjorie Neff, who formally resigned Thursday.
A long-time fixture on the city’s political scene, Wilkersonwas Street’s chief of staff from 2000 to 2008. She also ran Street’s office when he was on City Council and served nine years as deputy director of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority.
After a two-year stint running New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, Wilkerson returned to Philadelphia in 2012 and now serves as senior advisor for community relations and development at Temple University. She was also on Kenney’s mayoral transition team.
Wilkerson says her top priority as SRC chair will be to stabilize the district, by which she means inking a contract with the teachers union, lobbying to fix the state’s charter law so causes the district less financial distress, and securing revenue to plug a long-term budget gap.
“It’s hard to operate a district when all of those things are in flux,” she said. “It’s hard for teachers. It’s hard for administrators to focus on administration when every ball is up in the air.”
Wilkerson said she’s “not autmomatically against charters,” but that their proliferation creates stranded costs for the district.
On the future of the SRC itself, Wilkerson tacks close to Kenney’s position. She favors dissolving the commision–which can be done by a majority vote–but wouldn’t commit to a timeline for such action and thinks time is needed for a succession plan to be put in place.
“I think what we have now has not worked the way folk envisioned,” she said. “And so I support local control.”
Mayor Kenney echoed that sentiment in a statement announcing his choice.
“In the coming years, it’s important that the SRC continues to build on the District’s recent gains while also preparing for a smooth transition to greater local control,” said Kenney. “I am confident that Joyce’s strong fiscal management skills, and experience working in community engagement and for a variety of quasi-governmental organizations will enable her to succeed in this important role.”
Wolf spokseperson Jeff Sheridan said the Governor “commends Mayor Kenney on his choice.”
“She has deep ties to the community,” he said. ” She knows the city well. She knows the school system well.”
Council President Darrell Clarke, Councilwoman-at-large Helen Gym, district Superintendent William Hite, and teachers union head Jerry Jordan also added their kudos.
“Joyce Wilkerson is brilliant and deeply knowledgeable about all facets of government,” said Clarke. “I am pleased that Mayor Kenney has appointed her to serve on the School Reform Commission at this critical time. Joyce is a pro at balancing competing interests in the pursuit of fairness, and it only helps that she also is graceful and caring.”
Though Wilkerson doesn’t have much education-specific experience, she does have a history with the SRC. If she does indeed spearhead the effort to abolish the SRC, she will have curious distinction of assisting in the birth–and death–of the commission.
Wilkerson was chief of staff to Street in 2001 when the then-mayor swung a deal with state leaders that triggered a state takeover and the creation of the School Reform Commission. The swap helped alleviate a fiscal crisis that threatened to sink the school district. It also gave Harrisburg increased control over Philly schools, still a sore spot for some local advocates.
Wilkerson defends the move, saying it was necessary to buoy the district during a critical time and stave off a district-wide takeover by the for-profit management company Edison Schools.
“I think in light of all those circumstances Mayor Street did an incredible job in negotiating a deal for the city,” she said.
A commission in flux
The SRC has five members, two appointed by the mayor and three appointed by the governor. The governor also picks the board’s chair. The commission has final say over major school district decisions, including the district budget and charter school expansion. It does not, however, have the ability to raise its own revenue through taxes.
Wilkerson joins an SRC in flux and under attack.
Feather Houstoun, originally appointed by former Gov. Tom Corbett, left the commission in October. Gov. Tom Wolf has nominated Estelle Richman, a career public servant, as Houstoun’s replacement. Richman can’t serve, however, until she’s confirmed by the State Senate — a process that could take months.
Wilkerson can join the SRC immediately, but the commission may have to function with four members for an extended period of time. Commissioner Sylvia Simms’ term also expires in January. Kenney will name her successor, meaning he will have two appointees on the SRC for the remainder of his term.
That point isn’t lost on Kenney’s education allies, many of whom blame the current board for failing to reach a new contract with the city’s teachers and say there’s been undue deference to charter schools.
“Joyce Wilkerson is a seasoned public servant who has worked diligently on behalf of Philadelphia for many years,” said Gym, a frequent SRC antagonist. “The appointment of both Joyce Wilkerson and Estelle Richman will set a new direction for the SRC.”
SRC critics, Gym among them, have seized on this transitional moment to call for the body’s dissolution, which can be accomplished through a majority vote of the commissioners.
‘Communicating and connecting’
Wilkerson, a Cleveland native, got her undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a law degree from the University of California. During her legal career, Wilkerson worked with Community Legal Services of Philadelphia on housing cases.
She and Estelle Richman bring years of political experience to the SRC. The duo both worked in Philadelphia government during the Street administration, Wilkerson as chief of staff and Richman as the city’s managing director.
Phil Goldsmith, who was interim CEO of the school district during the Street administration and later succeeded Richman as managing director, called Wilkerson “extraordinarily able” and said she’s the type of even-keeled person who can handle the scrutiny that comes with an SRC position.
“You want people there that have good temperament, are able to put their ego aside, [and] are tough-skinned, because you get yelled at a lot,” said Goldsmith. “She has great experience with that.”
Goldsmith doesn’t remember Wilkerson as a principle player in the arrangement that resulted in the formation of the SRC, but says she was a constant presence in City Hall during the Street years.
“Joyce was a shadow everywhere,” said Goldsmith. “She may not be at the table, but you knew she knew what was going on at the table.”
Debra Kahn, secretary of education under Street, praised Wilkerson, as well.
“Joyce is very smart, knows how government works, and genuinely understands and feels how important education is for communities and the City,” said Kahn. “Plus, she has a great way of communicating and connecting with all kinds of people to get things done.”
Pedro Ramos, a former SRC chairman who was also the last president of Philadelphia’s local school board before the state takeover, said Wilkerson has the cache and experience to bridge gaps among labor unions, business leaders, and elected officials.
“She’s a good person to bring people together and keep converstions going,” Ramos said.
He also suggested Wilkerson has the temperment to endure as SRC chair, a position that opens one up to frequent critcism.
“Joyce is as focused as she is caring,” Ramos said. “She’s not somebody who is easily knocked off topic or provoked.”
Wilkerson believes years of public service have prepared her for the heat she’ll likely take as one of the faces of public education in Philadelphia.
“As Mayor Street used to say, I don’t have skin, I have hide,” she said.