Students, teachers and activists protest the School Reform Commission. (Charles Mostoller)

Mayor Jim Kenney on Thursday is expected to lay the groundwork for a new chapter in his role as mayor by announcing plans to take on the School Reform Commission.

 

Kenney will give a major speech at 10 a.m. at City Hall regarding the Philadelphia School District's "financial needs and the future of its governance."

 

While he did not officially state his intentions on Wednesday, they were made clear in Kenney's introductory letter to his administration's new report, "Ensuring Quality Schools for Every Philadelphia Child," to be released Nov. 2. 

 

"With a return to local control, the people of Philadelphia will finally be able to hold one person accountable for their school system, the mayor," Kenney wrote. "If we meet the district’s need, restore local control and create clear accountability, we can create quality schools in every neighborhood."

 

The change won't happen overnight. Kenney's report calls for eight months of public hearings on the topic of dissolving the SRC.

But the state commission has controlled Philly schools for 16 years and is loathed by many of the public education and progressive activists who helped fuel Kenney's path to office. In December 2001, the Philly School Reform Commission (SRC) was established by the commonwealth of Pennsylvania to oversee the School District of Philadelphia. The commission is also in charge of reviewing charter school applications.

The SRC was born in December 2001 surrounded by controversy, strongly opposed by Philly leaders but negotiated as part of a deal in which the state increased funding but took control of the cash-strapped district. But in recent months, voices have been growing to fight the board.

Despite heavy educational service rollbacks, like the closure of two dozen Philly public schools in 2013, the district has recently enjoyed a period of relative stability and even growth.

The 2017 academic year saw 600 new hires join the district. And the SRC itself recently lauded Superintendent Dr. William Hite for his stewardship of the district.

“The results of Dr. Hite’s steady leadership are evident across the School District of Philadelphia," the SRC said last week. "These include another year with a balanced budget, sustained investments in classrooms, a contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and, most importantly, the increased academic achievement of our students."

The SRC also bumped Hite's salary up to $311,760 as part of the union's contract renewal. Hite saved the school district $46 million by getting the teachers to agree to contribute earnings to their healthcare for the first time.

In addition, the city has opened 12 "community" schools and also says students get behavioral services they did not receive before.

Activists were already excited ahead of Kenney's announcement as they discussed the possibilities of a new school board.

“We are excited that there will potentially be forward movement on reclaiming local control of our schools," said Antione Little, chair of the Our City Our Schools coalition, which formed a year ago to push for abolition of the SRC. "We will continue to push for a true People’s School Board — a board made up of the students, parents and educators who know our schools best, a transparent board that ends conflict of interests, and a board ready to fight for true racial and economic justice in our schools.”