Trying to get answers from a large bureaucracy can feel banging your head against a wall.
Last night, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission tried to break down some of its own barriers to communication in a largely unprecedented meeting devoted entirely to questions from the public.
The two hour meeting was moderated by WHYY’s own Kevin McCorry, who injected his own follow-up questions on such topics as the contract with the teacher’s union.
The meeting drew about 30 people who aren’t journalists and don’t work for the school district. People watching via livestream from home could also submit questions, which then appeared in real time on a screen that dominated one wall of the auditorium.
Many questions lifted the veil on the inner-workings of the SRC itself. One person asked how much time the commissioners spend doing the jobs, which are unpaid. Commissioner Farrah Jimenez responded that on a “lean week,” they might do 10 hours of work, but the average is closer to 20 or 25 hours, with the chair doing even more.
Another question brought up the recent ballot question, in favor of dissolving the SRC and returning the Philadelphia schools to local control. The question passed by a large margin. Commissioner Bill Green said they are in favor of handing over the reins, but only when the district has been set up for success.
One important step towards success is a plan for sustainable resources, said Green. “We need occurring, predictable revenue…which is only going to come from a full fair funding formula out of Harrisburg.”
Chair Marge Neff echoed the call for more resources throughout the meeting, and acknowledged that the constant call for more money might create fatigue. “I’m afraid of sounding like a broken record.” SRC members asked repeatedly for parents to lobby City Council and the legislature to fully fund the School District.
Other questions shifted the focus to narrow issues, pertaining to a single child or school. Parent Karen Lewis asked why her “son had to catch a school bus at 6:04am to get to school at 8:30am.” A debate between the audience and Green ensued, with Lewis and others insisting that it’s the SRC’s responsibility to handle transportation issues.
Others asked about a legal battle over a community group’s attempt to redo a school playground. “I am very aware of it,” said Neff. “When the lawyers dance, I try not to get in the middle of it. But I understand the frustration.”
While the SRC was not able to provide detailed answers to specific questions, representatives from the district followed up with some audience members over individual gripes.
After two hours of rapid-fire questions and one spirited walk out by community activist Mama Gail, the meeting wrapped up on a reflective note.
McCorry asked the SRC, what was the purpose of tonight’s meeting and was it a success?
Neff said the goal was to open dialogue. “I think that we have to look at different ways of interacting. And I appreciated the opportunity for people to ask us questions.”
Not everyone was satisfied with the conversation. Parent Karen Lewis said she didn’t feel any better after the meeting. Instead, she felt “still disgusted, still disrespected.”
The district said it will post all of th questions and answers from the meeting online.