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Commission Overseeing Philly Schools Votes to Disband. What Happens Next?

Philadelphia-Schools-Gaines-600.jpg

Cheers, chants, and applause broke out in Philadelphia on Thursday night after a majority of the members on the School Reform Commission—the state created body that oversees the city's school system—voted to dissolve.

"The people united, will never be defeated, the people united, will never be defeated," meeting attendees chanted after the 3-1-1 vote to dissolve the School Reform Commission on the grounds that the district was no longer in "distress."

That was the term the state used 16 years ago, when then-Republican Gov. Mark S. Schweiker and Democratic Mayor John F. Street agreed to a state takeover of the school system.

The move to dissolve the School Reform Commission, which had become increasingly unpopular in recent years, jumped into high gear about two weeks ago when Philadelphia's Democratic Mayor James Kenney publicly called for the SRC to dissolve itself and return the school board to local governance. 

But Kenney is not proposing an elected school board—which some speakers at the meeting on Thursday said was their ultimate goal. Instead, the mayor is proposing a return to the kind of board outlined in the city's charter, in which a nominating committee will recommend potential board members to the mayor.

The city council has called for getting a say in who gets to serve on the board.

"Many of us have been waiting for today for a long, long time," Councilwoman Helen Gym, who testified frequently at SRC meetings before she was elected to the city council in 2015, said before the vote. 

The takeover, she said, did not solve the district's problems, and the premise that Philadelphians were incapable of governing their school system was wrong, she said.

She also acknowledged that the new school board will not meet many residents' vision of what local control should look like. She said they will continue to fight for funding equity, and make sure that any new school board is representative of the city and is accountable to residents.

"But this is a first step," she said.

What Happens Next?

The SRC will send its resolution to disband to Pedro Rivera, the state's education secretary. 

To have a local board in place by the beginning of next school year, Rivera will have to issue a decision on the dissolution by Dec. 31. 

The city is planning to make applications available to those interested in serving on the school board by December. New board members are expected to be appointed in late February, with training beginning in March. And a reorganization meeting with the new board members is expected before July 1.

While district officials touted academic gains recent years, along with some measure of fiscal stability, the district faces a deficit of about $450 million in 2021.

William Green, an SRC member who at one time chaired the panel, voted against the measure. He said he appreciated the desire for local control, but the rushed time frame made it difficult to support the resolution. He also had concerns about continuing funding for the district and argued that voting to disband the SRC removes the leverage the district had over the city over increasing revenues for the school system and will make it difficult to go back to the state and ask for additional funding after essentially telling the state to get lost.

"I truly hope that I am proven wrong," that the promised funding appears and there is a smooth transition from the SRC to a local board, Green said.

Finances were also the reason that commission member Farah Jimenez cited when she abstained from voting. She said there was no question that the district was still in distress. 

Chairwoman Joyce Wilkerson acknowledged some of the continuing financial challenges, but said she supported the move.

"I think none of us is deluded into thinking that by simply changing the governance we're going to change things overnight," Wilkerson said.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolfe said through a spokesman that he supported local control and that the education department will review the resolution, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. 

'RIP SRC'

The state swooped in to take charge of Philadelphia's schools in December 2001 amid disagreements over finances and with some city residents, parents, activists, and teachers protesting the decision. At the time, it was the largest state takeover of a district in the country. 

The last 16 years have been a bumpy one for the SRC, which has seen its popularity plummet. Board meetings are often a litany of complaints and questions about school funding, staffing, and charter schools.

Facing a significant budget shortfall in 2013, the SRC voted to close nearly two dozen schools and lay off more than 4,000 district staff. Nurses and counselors were cut from schools.

Two years ago, voters approved a non-binding resolution to return the district to local control.

In presentations before the vote, Superintendent William Hite focused on the academic progress the district had made, while the chief financial officer emphasized the strides made in stabilizing finances. The district will end fiscal year 2018 with a positive fund balance of $85.6 million. The district has also committed to having a nurse and counselor in every school.

Residents in the audience were jubilant about the impending demise of the SRC. Even as they expressed joy that the SRC was on its way out, some thanked members of the commission.

Others said they will continue to fight for fair state funding for the city's schools. Some said they had testified 16 years ago against the state takeover. 

Lisa Haver, a former teacher, said she was there to celebrate the "beginning of the end of the SRC," and that she will continue to fight for fair wages, schools that serve the majority of the district's children, against charter expansion, and against backdoor deals that put education vendors over students. 

One sign read: "The nightmare is over. Local control is here. RIP SRC. "

Shakeda Gaines, left, president of the Philadelphia Home and School Council, celebrates with Arlene Kenpin, outside the school district building where the School Reform Commission was meeting on Nov. 16 in Philadelphia. --Geneva Heffernan/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP

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