After an adversarial summer that left the School Reform Commission and the office of the superintendent in a state of upheaval, conversation is breaking out across the city with the goal of moving forward and leaving the ruins behind.
This was the tone struck Tuesday night at a public forum discussion of governance and the School District of Philadelphia. Presented by Public Citizens for Children and Youth at the United Way building, the panel, moderated by recently retired Philadelphia Daily News columnist Elmer Smith, took on issues such as whether or not SRC members should be paid, whether an elected board works better than the SRC, the lack of succession planning in leadership positions and other issues.
SRC critic Helen Gym, founder of Parents United for Public Education, believes that the SRC, which oversees the third largest budget (approximately $3 billion), should be a full-time job.
“I don’t think that five people who have separate jobs and think they are volunteering as an appointment can really do the job that is necessary,” Gym flatly stated. “I just don’t think it’s a volunteer job. You have the third largest budget in the state and you are just going to hand it over to a group of volunteers who don’t have it on their agenda as a full-time job? I just don’t think it’s the right thing to do.”
Sandra Dungee-Glenn, president and chief executive officer of American Cities Foundation, was the former chair of the SRC. She also served on the Board of Education before it was replaced by the SRC in 2001 in response to the school district’s financial problems.
Dungee-Glenn believes that the chair should take a salary; the other four members, she says, should not.
“You are sitting in that seat and it’s hard for anyone; it’s tough,” Dungee-Glenn said. “For the chair to do it well you need to be devoted to it full time. You are not only the leading voice but you are also the one responsible for setting the agenda — you’re the face of the city and the school district. So, yes, the chair should be a full-time position.”
The district is still trying to close a budget gap that was as high as $680 million. There have been mass layoffs, a damning report out of the mayor’s office condemning the actions of former SRC boss Robert L. Archie and state Rep. Dwight Evans, the buyout of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and the subsequent resignations of Archie and fellow board member Johnny Irizarry.
For Dungee-Glenn, how those charged with leading the school district arrive there — via appointment or election — is more important is that they know there job when they get there.
“How they get there is not really important,” she said. “Whether elected or appointed, most school board members are very poorly prepared for what we are asked to do — that’s really the problem.”
Keith Lomax, a 2011 Southern High graduate, expressed concerns that the SRC didn’t operate in the best interest of Philadelphians, mostly because the governor has more appointments than the mayor.
“It should have had more people from Philadelphia who are familiar with what goes on in Philly,” Lomax, headed for the army, said.
For Maurice Jones, a member of the Philadelphia Student Union and the West Philadelphia Coalition of Neighborhood Schools, governance at the school district is an amorphous group of acronyms that seem out of touch with parents and the students.
“From the perspective of a parent,” Jones, the home and school president of Lea Elementary, said, “I just feel like I haven’t been able to interact with the whole process because my voice is never heard. People get nominated for positions and there is no interaction. They come and they go and during that process the parents, who speak for children, don’t have a say. When they are gone the parent is still left standing and wondering when I’m going to get a say. When do we get an opportunity to have a say?”
Samuel Reed, a representative for the for the Teachers’ Institute of Philadelphia, believes that too often governance is discussed from the top down, the result being that the grass roots people are ignored and neglected.
“We all need to be involved to have a better, more responsive school district,” Reed said. “Therefore you should just be concerned about who is in charge and running the big operation. Let’s take care of the foundation at the school level, then we can approach what we need to do at the top. If you have a poor foundation but good governance at the top, what are you going to have? The foundation hasn’t been addressed and as a result the building is going to crumble.”
Smith led the discussion into a conversation about succession planning; something the school district has come under criticism for, particularly in wake of yet another national search to fill the vacant superintendent’s seat. Smith asked whether constantly bringing in people with a “new vision” for the school district was a good idea.
“I get nervous whenever I hear people talking about that,” said former Trenton Public Schools principal and Penn Professor James H. Lytle said. “One of Philadelphia’s biggest problems is that it hasn’t had a local superintendent since the mid 1990s.”
A professor of Foundations and Practices in education, Lytle added, “One of the first things you teach is leadership so that you don’t have to go fishing all over the countryside every time we need a new leader. We have not done a good job of this at any level.”