Wolf administration greenlights returning Philly schools to local control

Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera officially approved the demise of Philadelphia School Reform Commission, return of the school district to city control.

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At the June 15 School Reform Commission meeting, demonstrators carried signs calling for the SRC to vote itself out of existence and return the school district to city control. (David Hornbeck/The Notebook)

At the June 15 School Reform Commission meeting, demonstrators carried signs calling for the SRC to vote itself out of existence and return the school district to city control. (David Hornbeck/The Notebook)

Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera has officially approved the demise of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission and return of the school district to city control, formally ending 16 turbulent years of state governance.

Gov. Tom Wolf made the announcement Wednesday afternoon after Rivera sent a letter to the SRC approving its recommendation for self-destruction and rescinding the district’s designation as “distressed.” Rivera had until Dec. 31 to act on the SRC’s move. The dissolution takes effect June 30.

A nine-member board of education appointed by Mayor Jim Kenney and vetted by City Council will take control of the district on July 1.

“Quality public schools are essential for our economy and our future, and the improvements made by the district in recent years have been significant,” said Wolf in a statement. “My administration has made public education a top priority, and local control with strong state support will make the district stronger.”

Wolf, who is running for re-election this year, said that local control will “allow those improvements to continue and will better serve the needs of the district’s students and schools.”

Rivera, a former Philadelphia teacher and principal, said in his letter to the SRC that he had conducted a “comprehensive review” and concluded that return to local control was merited, even though the district is facing huge deficits in the future. He said he was influenced by Kenney’s vow that the city would become more involved in the district and his “public commitment to fulfilling the district’s financial needs.”

The state took over the city’s schools because of its fiscal problems, but — after the first few years — it did not give Philadelphia any special consideration when it came to distributing state education dollars. In fact, reductions made by Gov. Tom Corbett affected most school districts, but were especially harsh on Philadelphia, which absorbed about a quarter of the $1 billion in cuts. That triggered massive layoffs of teachers, nurses and counselors, from which the district is only now recovering.

For the past few years, Superintendent William Hite has been restoring nurses, counselors, and art and music teachers, in addition to making other investments. This year, the district’s academics, as measured by state test scores, have shown a small uptick. The strongest gains have been in the lower grades, reflecting an emphasis on early literacy.

While praising the district’s “work to improve [its] academic and fiscal condition,” Rivera also said in his letter that he expects the new board of education will face its own challenges, including a projected deficit. While it has run small surpluses for the last few years — providing the window of stability needed to trigger the change in governance — the latest estimates find the district will be about $700 million in the red by 2022.

Rivera also noted that much of the district’s budget depends on state actions and other factors that are beyond its control, such as pension, health benefits and charter school tuition costs.

“I have no evidence upon which I could conclude that continuing the SRC’s control of the district will improve its ability to address these challenges,” Rivera said.

Motives questioned

While the move was praised by public school advocates and teachers union representatives, SRC member Bill Green said he believes Rivera’s certification was rushed by the governor out of political expediency.

“The process got rushed at the last minute to be done by Dec. 31, so he can campaign this year saying the SRC was eliminated, which is was one of his campaign promises,” said Green, “which is unfortunate: to bring politics into what would’ve been a smooth and responsible transition.”

Activists had pushed for the end of SRC control before the upcoming election, as a matter of principle and amid fears that a Republican hostile to the district’s needs could unseat Wolf.

“Now is the right time for local control. It’s time for the SRC to dissolve,” said Jim Engler, the top official for policy and legislation in the mayor’s office. “We can return to a locally controlled school board that we think is going to be more responsive to local needs.”

Kenney moved from philosophical support for local control during his mayoral campaign to concerns as mayor about whether a governance change would actually improve the education of children in the city. He ultimately came to the conclusion that the city needed to take control of its education system for the sake of its future. While initially fearing political repercussions, Kenney realized that the major advocates for the takeover in Harrisburg had moved on, and current leaders in the State Capitol were neither invested, nor particularly interested, in having power over the system.

The district was declared distressed in December 2001 by then-Secretary of Education Charles Zogby, who was appointed by Gov. Tom Ridge.

Rivera said the district and the city have developed an appropriate transition plan. Kenney expects to name members of a nominating committee in January who will present him with 27 names — three for each of the nine openings — by February. Once named, board of education members will receive training, attend SRC action meetings, and form committees.

WHYY’s Bobby Allyn contributed reporting.

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