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Pennsylvania Governor Appoints New Head of Philly School Commission

Nearly two weeks after the Philadelphia School Reform Commission approved five new charter schools, the chairman has been stripped of his duties by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that Bill Green, the chairman, will be replaced by Marjorie Neff, a retired Philadelphia public school principal and a commission member who voted against all 39 new charter applications that the board considered last month.

"The School District of Philadelphia is in dire financial straits, and our children are being put at a disadvantage as a result of misguided cuts and poor decisions," Wolf said in a statement, according to 6abc, an ABC affiliate in Philadelphia.

"Marjorie has dedicated her entire career to education, and she shares my vision for investing in public education so our children have the resources they need to succeed in a modern economy."

Green told the paper that he will continue to serve on the five-member board, whose members are appointed by the governor and the mayor of the City of Philadelphia, but that he planned to challenge the action in the Commonwealth Court.

In a district-issued statement, Green said that he did not believe that the governor had the authority to remove him as chairman of the SRC, a non-paying post, and his legal action will seek to clarify whether the governor can do so.

"The SRC statute—696(b)(2)—makes clear that no Commissioner may be removed from office except for misfeasance and malfeasance," according to the statement.

"I hold the office of chair and the office of commissioner; there is no vacancy in the chair and no legal basis for another commissioner to be named chair," Green said.  "This is important: by limiting removal to cause, the SRC statute makes clear that commissioners, once appointed, need to be free from political repercussions for their actions in office."

The vote to approve the new charter schools—the first batch of charter approvals in seven years—had been particularly contentious, with Gov. Wolf asking that no new charters be approved given the district's financial situation. (After years of budget shortfalls in which school administrators seriously considered delaying the start of the school year and implemented thousands of staff layoffs to come to terms with structural budget deficits, the district still faces an $80 million shortfall this year.)

Wolf and others who opposed charter expansion in the city, said the charter schools would divert millions away from the district's traditional public schools, already operating at bare-bones levels after years of budget cuts.

But the commission also faced intense pressure from state Republicans who wanted them to approve charters, including up to 27 that were being proposed by organizations that were already running schools in Philadelphia.

In the end—after a nearly five-hour meeting—the board approved five charters.

Neff, a former principal of Masterman, a high-performing district school, is the first educator to head the system in 22 years, Jerry Jordan, the president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and who supports the governor's action, told the paper.

The move has received support from Mayor Michael Nutter and some Philadelphia Democrats. It was, however, criticized by House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny), who was among the Republicans who encouraged the charter approvals.

Turzai told the paper that the move "seems punitive" and was "reflective of the governor's anti-school-choice perspective. He's taken a position with the teachers' unions and opposed to charters."

Meanwhile, Neff said that she hoped her "background and experience as an educator and a parent will be useful to the task at hand."

She also took the opportunity to praise Green for his leadership through challenging times in the district. 

"Bill has shown himself to be an extremely capable and dedicated member of the SRC," she said.  "I look forward to continuing our work together with the other SRC members and Superintendent Hite to provide a quality education for every Philadelphia student."

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