Philadelphia’s City Council held a first-of-its-kind hearing Tuesday with school district officials and members of the city’s new school board, the latest sign that city lawmakers will be keeping closer tabs on the schools.
The content of the hearing — topics such as funding, staffing, and building conditions — won’t surprise close observers of Pennsylvania’s largest school district.
But it was a milestone meeting nonetheless, simply because it took place.
“This is to, a large degree, a momentous day,” said Council President Darrell Clarke. “I know a lot of people have been waiting for this day in a very public way.”
After 17 years under the watch of a state-controlled board, Philadelphia’s public school district will now answer to a school board made up of mayoral appointees. City Council will also have say in those selections, likely ensuring a closer relationship between the district and Philadelphia legislators.
That closer relationship will include at least two meetings a year where board members and district officials appear before City Council and the public.
Mayor Jim Kenney called the inaugural hearing “historic.”
“Now, our city’s future is in our hands — right where we want it to be,” said Kenney. “Together, we can ensure that there are quality schools in every Philadelphia neighborhood.”
Under Kenney’s direction — and with the prodding of activists — Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission voted to dissolve itself last fall. Kenney then appointed nine school board members to replace the state-controlled SRC.
City Council will have veto power over future mayoral appointments to the school board, marking the first time in nearly two decades Philly lawmakers will have direct input on school district leadership.
Prior to the reinstatement of local control, Council members had one chance each year to question school officials during the district’s annual budget hearing. It was emblematic of a relationship built on purse strings, and the hearing could feel, at times, confrontational.
Tuesday’s hearing covered many of the same topics, but had more of a cooperative feel.
“Normally when we come we’re at a hearing … being grilled on a lot of issues,” said school board president Joyce Wilkerson, one of two current board members to have served on the SRC. “We celebrate this opportunity to have more of a conversation.”
That conversation still featured some pointed questions from legislators.
Councilwoman Helen Gym challenged district officials to improve their teacher vacancy rate. Gym, a longtime education advocate, said cities like New York and Chicago had more teachers lining up for open positions and that, under former superintendent Arlene Ackerman, the district was able to ensure each class had a certified teacher.
Current Superintendent William Hite said the district was working hard to fill all staff positions, but he said the teacher fill rate was over 99 percent and much better than Chicago’s rate.
Curtis Jones, Jr., who represents parts of West and Northwest Philadelphia, floated the idea of the city operating overnight schools for troubled students instead of sending them to privately run schools.
Councilman Derek Green urged district leaders to work across the aisle in Harrisburg to help reform the state’s charter school law. He noted that with more rural families choosing cyber charters, conservative state legislators might be willing to tweak the state’s formula for distributing charter aid as a way to shield their home districts from financial harm.
Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown asked if the district and city could work together more closely to share facilities now that the city is playing a bigger role in district oversight. Hite said those conversations had already started.
“We are trying to come up with a coordinated way to look at all the assets,” Hite said.
Reynolds Brown’s response seemed to capture the mood of the meeting.
“Finally, the stars are aligned,” she said.