‘Misleading’ ballot question would tweak Philly school board process

Philadelphia School District headquarters at Broad and Spring Garden streets (Emma Lee/WHYY, file)

Philadelphia School District headquarters at Broad and Spring Garden streets (Emma Lee/WHYY, file)

A charter change before Philadelphians Tuesday would give City Council more power over the composition of the city’s new school board, although the wording of the actual ballot question could leave some voters confused.

Ballot question No. 2 asks Philadelphians:

Shall the Educational Supplement to the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter be amended to restore local control by confirming the Board of Education’s independent responsibility to administer the School District of Philadelphia, providing for public participation in the Educational Nominating Panel process, revising eligibility requirements, requiring City Council confirmation of School Board appointments, requiring a stated reason for removing a School Board Member and establishing a Parent and Community Advisory Council?

The question’s first clause, about amending the charter “to restore local control,” is little more than a rhetorical distraction.

Local control has already been restored, and this vote will have no bearing on that development.

“It’s misleading, that first part of the question,” said Patrick Christmas, policy program manager for Committee of Seventy, a government watchdog group that supports the ballot measure. “Why it was drafted up that way, I can only speculate.”

Late last year, the state-controlled School Reform Commission (SRC) voted to dissolve. On July 1, the SRC will be replaced by a nine-person school board, whose members have already been appointed by Mayor Jim Kenney.

When Kenney made those appointments, he was operating under rules established before the SRC came into existence. That’s because there was already language in the city’s charter about how to appoint a school board, and that language became the default.

Under the old rules, the mayor had sole authority for appointments and total discretion when removing board members.

If voters approve Tuesday’s ballot question, City Council would have a much bigger say in appointments and the mayor would have a tougher time yanking appointees he or she doesn’t like.

If passed, this charter change would….

— Give City Council the ability to approve or reject any mayoral nominees to the local board of education. This would be essentially a confirmation process. Nominees would have a public hearing, after which council would need to approve them by a majority vote. Right now, council has no formal say in the nomination process. Christmas, with Committee of Seventy, calls the charter change “reasonable,” and says it makes sense for council to exert some control when it sends over a billion dollars annually to local schools.

— Make it so the mayor couldn’t ax school board members without cause. Right now, board members “serve at the pleasure of the Mayor,” according to the city charter. The new language wouldn’t change that, but it would require the mayor to provide “reasons” for getting rid of a board member. Those reasons must “be stated with specificity and demonstrate the member’s unfitness to serve.” Kenney initially opposed this change, but ultimately signed the legislation enabling a ballot question on the topic.

— Require school board members to merely be residents of Philadelphia. Right now, board members must be “Philadelphia voters.”

— Require the nominating panel for the board of education to advertise board openings “at least to the same extent as the City is required to advertise invitations to bid on City contracts.” The nominating panel is tasked with giving the mayor a pool of names from which he or she picks the eventual appointees. This change would ask the panel to publicize its work through advertisements in local newspapers, specifically once a week for two weeks in “one of the three newspapers having the largest paid circulation in the City and in such other newspapers as it deems necessary.”

— Establish a “Parent and Community Advisory Council” that would meet with the school board twice a year.

Precedent would suggest the ballot question is likely to pass.

Voters rarely reject ballot questions in Philadelphia. Plus, the way this particular ballot question is worded should be especially helpful.

In 2015, a non-binding ballot question asked Philadelphia voters whether they’d favor the dissolution of the SRC and a return to local control of city schools. About three-quarters of voters said “yes.” If people think Tuesday’s ballot question is about re-establishing local control — as the text itself suggests — that would likely give the “yes” camp a boost.

The City Council bill and resolution that put this question on the ballot were co-sponsored by Council President Darrell Clarke and Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who chairs City Council’s education committee. Chances are Clarke and Blackwell would have significant roles in vetting and approving future board appointees if voters approve the proposed charter change.

Any changes made Tuesday would apply to future appointees, not to the nine people Kenney has already chosen for his inaugural board. Those nine members are undergoing orientation right now and will assume their positions on July 1.

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