Primer on Philly school district’s changing of the guard

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Douglas Leach, teacher and graduate of Lincoln High School, holds up a sign at a rally ahead of a School Reform Commission meeting in November. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Douglas Leach, teacher and graduate of Lincoln High School, holds up a sign at a rally ahead of a School Reform Commission meeting in November. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Last week, members of Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission gathered for the last time.

A new nine-member Board of Education, appointed by the mayor, takes over — holding its first public meeting July 9.

I caught up with WHYY’s education reporter Avi Wolfman-Arent to talk about this period of transition.

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What was the swan song for the SRC at its final meeting?

It was sort of a regular meeting. They considered a bunch of charter school renewals, and there were a couple of pet issues that popped up and then inspired some anger, which happens at every SRC meeting. At the end, the SRC members gave speeches and rode off into the sunset. It wasn’t that different than a normal meeting.

It just quietly dissolves into oblivion?

Yeah, it was interesting. I think it was indicative of the fact that there weren’t a lot of champions, a lot of people in the SRC’s corner, by the time it faded out.

Well, take us back before the knockout. So, 17 years ago, why was the SRC created? Some people don’t remember.

There was this sense, especially among leaders in Harrisburg and some local state representatives, that the School District of Philadelphia was in a really tough position. The state needed to step in and fix things and institute reforms and shake things up because kids weren’t graduating. There wasn’t meaningful academic progress. And the school district was perpetually in financial distress.

They created this board — five members, three of them appointed by the governor, two of them appointed by the mayor — that would serve the function of a school board.

Let’s compare the SRC with the new school board that’s going to be taking over. Will there be a difference in functionality?   

Not really. They’re going to do a lot of the same things, they are going to approve contracts, they’re going to vote up or down on charter schools, they’re going to vote on policies. They’re really going to serve the exact same role. The difference is all of the members are appointed by the mayor, instead of having some of the members appointed by the governor.

Let’s talk about who the board will be accountable to. I guess the mayor? City Council?

Chiefly the mayor. City Council is going to have the ability to vote up or down on future appointees, so they’re going to have some say as well. But a lot of people are upset that there will be no direct voter accountability for the board. That’s the most democratic form of board governance, and it’s what exists in almost every other school district around the country and here in Pennsylvania. So, it’s going to be this sort of indirect form of representation.

Will the school board be acting on anything that we know of right out of the gates, or is the agenda to be determined?

Mostly to be determined. There’s one big issue, which is that about a quarter of the city’s charter schools have refused to sign agreements with the district because they feel like the terms are unfair and too strict and that the academic bar for them is being set too high. That issue is lingering, but for the most part, we’ll see. It’s mostly a clean slate. One thing that should be noted is that the school district is in a pretty good financial situation for the next two or three years, so they’re not going to have to worry about catastrophic things that pop up when you’re in a budget crunch. So it’ll probably mostly be nickel-and-dime issues and some smaller policy things, at least for the foreseeable future.

You know the expression be careful what you ask for. At what point might this new board get bumped and dinged by the people? People can easily dislike and distrust who is in charge of a big — at times struggling — school district.

You hit the nail in the head. There are certainly things the SRC did, generally speaking, that some people didn’t like. But, in a lot of ways, it was a way for people to sort of pass their frustrations on to this body, frustrations that are born out of the fact that this is just a big urban school district with lots of big problems. And there really aren’t any easy answers. And so you end up heaping your frustrations on the people in charge. And I think that will be the case with this new board.  

I’m sure you’ve thought of this: What do you see as the SRC’s legacy? Did it bring the school district to a place that it needed to be, or at least get it toward that goal?   

I would say TBD. Graduation rates went up. When the SRC was formed, it was sort of promised that it would really stabilize the district, especially financially. That didn’t really play out. There were still lots of ups and downs; part of that had to do with the recession that came along and some changes in state aid. There were big changes that happened. Charter schools grew tremendously. It’s hard to know whether that would have happened with or without the SRC. But I wouldn’t say it’s going to be remembered all that fondly. But I do think maybe 70 to 80 percent of that is the fact that they’re in a position that people are going to attack them, no matter what.  

Avi, as an education reporter, a new board means a new era of reporting for you. Are you excited about that?

I’m excited to learn who these new people are. There’s now nine people on the school board. And they’re not the usual suspects, they aren’t the type of people that used to show up at SRC meetings and raise a ruckus. They aren’t the type of people who folks like me were quoting all the time about education issues. They’re just civically involved folks who now happen to be in charge of the schools. And I don’t know totally what to expect for them.

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Avi Wolfman-Arent is WHYY’s education reporter.   

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