As the School Reform Commission searches for a new superintendent, the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity ramped up its pressure to include more clergy in the selection process during a press conference on Tuesday in front of School District of Philadelphia headquarters on North Broad Street.
Black Clergy president Terrance Griffith and Bright Hope Baptist Church’s Reverend Kevin R. Johnson joined local NAACP president Jerry Mondesire and a slew of local clergy in demanding the school district do all it can to put children first.
“The School District of Philadelphia is undergoing radical education reform with little or no input from taxpayers, parents, students, teachers and voters,” Johnson said, noting that he has two children in the public school system, and they will soon be joined by a third. “Interim appointees, who represent the mayor, governor and business interests, are moving forward with a plan to radically decentralize the district, with no publicly stated and clearly articulated vision on decentralization and how this radical education reform will benefit all children in the school district.”
Johnson and others point to the district’s Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen’s prediction that the district will face a $145 million budget gap for the fiscal year starting July 1, 2012 — and that some have suggested deficits twice as deep. Johnson also referred to City Controller Alan Butkovitiz’s scathing report that outlined the now well-known budget gap of $61 million that the district must close by July of this year.
Johnson blasted the district for basically throwing good money after bad, by hiring contractors and paying them exorbitant fees, while squeezing the services and programs it offers its students.
“In order to address this fiscal crisis, the SRC’s answer has been to hire outside debt-reduction consultants with lucrative short-term multi-million dollar contracts, eliminate Promise Academies, cut summer school, lay off school safety officers and move forward with a plan to decentralize the district,” Johnson said, referring to the $6 million contract the district awarded The Boston Group. “There seems to be a radical education reform agenda being imposed — with no superintendent or captain to steer the ship.”
Mondesire minced no words in placing blame for the crisis facing Philadelphia public education.
“The problem begins right down the street at City Hall — it starts with the mayor, and ends up right here with the SRC, and the governor who cut the funding in education,” Mondesire said, pledging that the NAACP will back the Black Clergy’s moves. “These are the real culprits in this skullduggery. [The SRC] wants to decentralize the system because they eventually want to get to a privatized system, and that would destroy public education.”
While short on providing actual solutions to the multi-pronged issues facing the school district, Griffith made it clear that he was not pleased with the series of meetings the SRC held throughout the city, or with the selection team itself.
“We’re looking for fair education for our kids. Education is not a Center City right, but a right for all children in Philadelphia,” Griffith said. “We are looking for a good superintendent, and we want to be a part of the process. We do not believe the members of the SRC and a few other people should determine who the superintendent is, with some orchestrated community discussions.”
Indeed, the SRC has recently completed the last of 21 meetings throughout the city, during which it gathered information from attending stakeholders on what qualities they are looking for in a new leader. These meetings ran concurrently with discussions on the closure of nine public schools throughout the city. And through some painful cuts — including the reduction of security staff and closing school buildings on weekends — have allowed the district to nearly cut in half its budget gap for this year.
And last week, the SRC released a statement that it had — on Mayor Nutter’s recommendation — added Reverend Albert Campbell, pastor of Mt. Caramel Baptist Church, to its SRC search team committee, a unit that already included mayoral appointments Lori Shorr and Sylvia Simms. Pedro Ramos serves as SRC chairman, and committee members include Len Riser, Patricia DeCarlo, Robert Wonderling, Fred Ginyard, Ed Williams and Ken Kring.
When asked about Reverend Campbell’s appointment to the SRC, Griffith would only say that he “loved Pastor Campbell.”
Campbell, who will celebrate his 46th year as spiritual leader of Mt. Caramel, says his appointment “may have the potential to strain a few relationships,” but Campbell — himself a member of the Black clergy association who once served as secretary for the organization — also believes the integrity and devotion of the members will overcome any disagreement over his appointment.
“I think, for the most part, the brotherhood and the solid foundation that exists among the brothers and sisters who are pastors and part of the pastoral arena will remain intact,” said the 79-year-old Campbell. “So I am reasonably comfortable with our ongoing relationship as it relates to the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and as it relates to the Baptist Pastors and Ministers Conference.
“We’re not strangers, but I am amongst the elders — and there is awareness of my reprioritization of my life.”
Campbell said his relationship with Nutter goes back more than 30 years, when Nutter was a member of the church’s choir. That relationship continued through Nutter’s appointment as City Council president, and then through Nutter’s two successful mayoral campaigns.
“When he decided to run for mayor, we conferred; he consulted me, and I gladly gave him my judgment about the wisdom of his running,” Campbell said. “He was running against the odds; there were two or three other prominent Black politicians who threw their hats in the ring.
“I encouraged him to run,” Campbell continued, “and I have stood by my commitment to support him, be his spiritual consultant as well as one of his up-close and personal critics.”
Meanwhile, the school district also released an update to its “Educational Leadership Criteria” which it will use to select a new superintendent. The new superintendent should “be sensitive to issues of equity within the school system; manage the business aspects of the district with unwavering focus on what is best for the educational enterprise; understand and respect the diversity of the City of Philadelphia; engage, listen to and be responsive to students, families and other stakeholders; be committed to transparency and openness in the management of the school district and understand that excellent schools should be determined by more than standardized test scores, but a collection of school-based outcomes.”
Ed Williams, Lori Schorr say they are partners with Phila. district – not overseers
Lori Shorr and Ed Williams, the new city and state executive adviser appointees for the Philadelphia School District, don’t want their new roles misinterpreted as the district embarks on yet another search for a superintendent.
In their own words, they are not operatives of the city or the state, setting up offices at 400 N. Broad St. to provide oversight to a district that many, following a summer of turbulence, view as out of control.
“No, my role is anything but that,” said Williams, chuckling, recently following last week’s meeting of the School Reform Commission. “Our roles will crystallize in the coming weeks. But the one thing that is completely understood is that this is partnership and the goal is simple: make sure everything we do is geared toward making the next superintendent’s transition work for the children, teachers and parents of the district. That’s all.”
“I have an excellent working relationship with [Interim Superintendent] Lee Nunery,” Shorr said. “I have been working closely with the district for the last three-and-a-half years. The mayor is very concerned about the state of education in the city. This will be an extension and a convenience in that we can be in more constant communication about what happens in the district in real time. But we’ll be following Leroy’s lead. It’s going to be exciting to just be here for the acting superintendent.”
Both Shorr and Williams are lifelong educators.
Before she became the chief education officer in the mayor’s office at the start of 2008 — where her primary focus is to reduce the high school dropout rate and increase college degree attainment — Shorr spent the previous two years as the vice president of Policy and Planning with the Philadelphia Youth Network, a nationally recognized non-profit that manages millions of dollars in investments from government and industry.
Before this, she was a special assistant to the Pennsylvania Secretary of Education, reviewing and analyzing initiatives and priorities to ensure that they met established standards.
Before Tomalis appointed him, the semi-retired Williams had previously served as the chief academic officer for the district. He has also served as the deputy associate deputy associate superintendent for the office of schools, where he oversaw the transformation of the district’s then 264 schools into the neighborhood cluster model.
Williams has also served as both a teacher and a principal at the elementary and secondary levels.
Both will be integral in providing information and input room the city and state as the district embarks on yet another national search for the next superintendent, a search of which Mayor Michael Nutter has not provided a timeline.
Nutter said the process would be ramped up once the SRC is fully constituted.
The SRC on Monday moved one step closer to completion when Nutter named arts advocate and novelist Lorene Cary to the SRC. Cary should be swiftly approved, and then the last piece of the SRC should be finalized around Thanksgiving if gubernatorial nominee Pedro Ramos is confirmed by the state Senate.
Nunery has voiced his approval of Shorr and Williams lending a hand and helping the struggling district.
“This is not only my ringing endorsement,” Nunery said, “but I’m excited about having people on my wings talking all the time about how to get things done and working with the great team of people that have. We’ve got some folks here who are incredibly dedicated to their craft. What we need to do now is charge forward.”
Both Williams and Shorr believe that Nunery – as the interim now and, ultimately, if he becomes the superintendent – must be the person to make all the final decisions on everything.
“This is his plan; we’re just here to advise him and support him in the things he wants to do,” Williams said. “So if he gets the job, great. He will have been involved in all of the things we have talked about. It should be an opportunity for Leroy to move the system where he wants to move it, and then I’m going to support him in any way. That’s how I see the role of the advisers.”
If School Reform Commission Chairman Pedro Ramos has his way, students enrolled in the Philadelphia School District and their parents should know who the new superintendent is before schools open in September.
That’s provided the newly assembled Superintendent Search Team can finish its work in the next eight months.
“There is no greater responsibility for the SRC than selecting the right superintendent,” Ramos said through a statement released by the SRC. “We believe we can complete the search before September, and we will continue until we have the right leader for our district and our system of schools. We will not settle.”
Lorene Cary, Joseph Dworetzky, Feather Houstoun, and Wendell Pritchett will join Ramos as members of the search team, with Pritchett serving as search team leader. Its executive advisors are Lori Shorr and Edward Williams; Fred Ginyard, Kenneth Kring and Robert Wonderling, the president and CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, will round out the team. And that team certainly has its work cut out for it, given the high-profile dismissal last August of controversial former superintendent Arlene Ackerman.
After her dismissal, Ackerman humiliated and infuriated school and city officials by filing for unemployment – after she was paid $905,000 in her severance package. The SRC, in its settlement with Ackerman, stated it would not resist her attempt to claim unemployment.
All parties involved in the search for a new school district leader promise a diligent, well-executed search that will focus on certain core criteria.
“Effective community dialogue and input will be critical in the selection of our next superintendent,” said Pritchett. “It is important that the search team is transparent and inclusive in its efforts to select the best candidate to sustain and accelerate the positive academic gains of our children we have experienced.
“The search team must, at the same time, be respectful of the privacy interests of persons who are not prepared to be a candidate, or are not under consideration as finalists for the position.”
Count Mayor Michael Nutter as one of those impressed with the SRC’s move to create the search team.
“I commend the SRC on striking a balance between the need for true public engagement and the importance of moving quickly…this community engagement process will help the SRC to learn from parents, students, and stakeholders about what is needed at the school level as they take on the vitally important task,” Nutter said. “The community engagement process will provide invaluable input to be used throughout the selection process and beyond.”