City Council debates returning Philly schools to local control

school district rally
Students rallied last month against budget cuts outside the School District of Philadelphia headquarters. (Credit: Rikard Larma / Metro).

City Council on Monday held a hearing debating returning the School District of Philadelphia to the control of a locally-elected school board.

The Commonwealth in 2001 took over the embattled District by replacing the school board with the School Reform Commission consisting of three gubernatorial appointees and two mayoral appointees.

The SRC last week voted to approve a “doomsday” budget for city schools, drastically slashing support staff and eliminating extracurricular programs.

“The pain caused by the SRC has far outweighed the benefits of this failed experiment,” Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan said.

“It is time for the management of the School District to be returned to the city of Philadelphia. It is hard to imagine that a community-represented school board could do a worse job of managing the District’s resources than the SRC has done. At least Philadelphia’s taxpayers would be able to hold them accountable.”

State Rep. Mark Cohen said, in his opinion, an elected school board must have the power to raise revenue through levying taxes in order to be meaningful.

“All the other school districts in Pennsylvania, which are elected, have independent taxing power – the school district levies taxes, so do local governments – and it is very clear who is paying for what,” he said.

But Council Education Committee chair Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell said it doesn’t seem likely her colleagues will support sharing that power.

“For us to move forward, it is my opinion, at this point, that Council is not willing to give away its taxing authority – and I never ask people to vote themselves out of a vote,” she said, inquiring about the feasibility of a hybrid school board that would make recommendations to City Council but not directly set tax rates.

A similar model was put forth in legislation introduced by state Sen. Mike Stack, who proposes establishing a locally-elected school board that would not have taxing power and whose superintendent would still be appointed by the mayor, though he could be ousted by a no-confidence vote from the board.

“The SRC fails the accountability and transparency test because its members are not elected by the taxpayers, therefore, they are not accountable to parents, students and certainly not to the taxpayers,” Stack said Monday.

“They are only accountable to the governor or mayor who appoints them.”

But attorney and education activist Leon Williams disagreed with at least one point of Stack’s proposal.

“We need to get that provision out of there that says the mayor appoints the superintendent,” he said.

“An elected school board should have the right and power to do that on its own. There’s no need to start off by crippling an elected school board.”

Cohen noted that making a locally-elected school board a reality would be a longterm process.

“First, we need a sense that Philadelphians really want an elected school board,” he said.

“Then we have to get the votes in the state legislature to allow Philadelphia to have it. It would ultimately either require an amendment to the city charter or an amendment to state law. It would probably be easier to amend the city charter. Without a charter amendment, it’s the duty of the state to determine it.”

Finally, Councilman Brian O’Neill pointed out the SRC was not an inherently bad model, especially given the financial challenges the city faced in 2001.

“There was promise and the mayor did not give up his ability to appoint the school board without assurances from the state this was a win for the city, as well as the state,” he said.

“It just didn’t work out that way.”

O’Neill thinks a longitudinal study needs to be done to determine exactly what caused the SRC to go south and why in order to avoid making the same missteps again.

“Maybe we can find out, in the current setup, where things went wrong – should there have been funding in the legislation that set up the SRC, funding guarantees, that kind of thing,” he said.

In the meantime, according to activist Helen Gym of Parents United for Public Education, “the School District of Philadelphia has the largest budget in Pennsylvania, behind the city and the state itself. Governing it are people whose qualifications are a mystery, whose intentions are kept private and whose identities are unknown to many. Never has so much money gone unaccounted.”


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