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.”
A controversial new curfew intended to keep teens off the street after 11 p.m. was signed into law this week by Mayor Michael Nutter.
“By adopting this legislation, we are updating and enforcing a law that was already on the books,” said Nutter, noting that the city has had a curfew since 1950.
Expanding the law was necessary, he said, to combat the ongoing problem of flash mobs, which popped up several times this summer in Center City and several other neighborhoods.
“During this past summer, our city was faced with a small percentage of our city’s youth impacting all of our citizens. This law will help our law enforcement to respond more effectively and quickly to apprehend the offenders,” he said.
The law, which was passed 16-1 by City Council last month, over vocal public objection, creates three different curfews according to age. Those 13 and under have to be off the street by 8 p.m. during the school year and 9 p.m. during the summer months. Kids ages 14 and 15 have a 9 p.m. curfew throughout the school year and 10 p.m. during the summer. Those 16 and 17 have to be inside by 10 p.m. through the school year and 11 p.m. in the summer.
Parents of violators can be fined up to $500.
According to the mayor’s office, curfew violators will be taken to the closest police station and held until their parents or guardians can be contacted. Parents will receive a notice or citation when they collect their child from the station. If a parent or guardian cannot be reached, police will contact the Department of Human Services (DHS) to initiate an investigation.
The law does provide a few exemptions.
Working teens or children acting on their parents’ orders or with their parents are excluded.
Nutter pushed for the new curfew hours after several flash mobs this summer. Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, who introduced the bill on the mayor’s behalf, praised him for quickly signing the bill into law.
This measure gives law enforcement officials an important tool that they have requested to deter youth violence,” she said. “Provided that it is used fairly and compassionately, it can be an important piece of the puzzle to building a safer city.”
Critics of the bill compared it to Jim Crow and apartheid.
“Let’s call it like it is. It’s a step back to Jim Crow,” said Adan Diaz, when he opposed the bill last month in City Council.
He then had harsh words for Council.
“You are a shame to yourself, your city, and yes, your race if you pass this,” he said to a round of applause.
I’ll give the Republicans one thing: When it comes to enacting sweeping governmental change, the Democrats can’t hold a candle to them.
Our Dems sure talk a good game — hope, change and all that happy stuff — but in the end, we pretty much get the same thing we always got. But when the GOP takes over the reins, you get change, and you get it fast.
True, every bit of that change is designed to benefit millionaires, big business, bankers, Wall Street thieves and their fat cat friends and contributors — and all on the backs of regular folks and the working poor — but you can’t deny that they waste no time in advancing their cause.
Within days of taking office, or taking over a governorship or legislative body, they’ll strip away decades of hard-won union rights, then they’ll snatch every dime from sorely needed social programs like subsidized day care and school lunches, all while giving massive tax breaks to filthy rich so-called “job creators,” whose only job creation experience is hiring nannies and gardeners.
Suddenly, us bleeding heart liberals and social do-gooders are left with an ever-increasing gap between the haves and the have nots, with people losing their homes at record levels, and formerly productive citizens reduced to begging or a life of crime.
And now, God bless ‘em, they’re at it again.
Hearings are scheduled for next week in Harrisburg on a GOP proposal to change the way Pennsylvania elects a president. The U.S. Constitution allows state legislators to choose presidential electors, collectively known as the Electoral College.
By far the most popular method, used by 48 states, gives all the electoral votes to the presidential candidate who wins the state’s popular vote. Only Maine and Nebraska appoint electors to the winner of each congressional district’s popular vote. As you’ll recall from watching past election coverage, when a candidate reaches 270 electoral votes, we have ourselves a winner.
Pennsylvania Republicans propose to change our winner-take-all method to the one that doles out the electoral votes a la carte, like Maine and Nebraska. Why would they do that?
Simple. The Democratic presidential candidate has won Pennsylvania in every election since 1992. In 2008, President Obama won the state with 55 percent of the popular vote, giving him all 20 Electoral College votes. If those electoral votes were apportioned by congressional district, Obama would probably only be able to claim Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, giving him just eight of those 20 votes.
That change, clearly designed to favor the Republican Party by snatching away Electoral College votes for Democrats, is just about as shameless a tactic as I’ve seen in politics. If you don’t like the outcome, they figure, just change the rules.
Except for one small detail: We Americans, even here in Pennsylvania, like the idea of “one man, one vote,” and we like to think that the popular vote winner is the fair choice. That concept, too, is blessed by the U.S. Constitution.
As a New York Times editorial last Sunday on the issue pointed out, “Unless this method was used consistently around the country, the result would be inherently unfair. Republicans want to split a swing state like Pennsylvania — but would never consider doing the same in Texas, which they have won since 1980 despite concentrations of Democratic voters in a handful of districts.”
A recent poll shows a majority of Pennsylvania voters don’t like the idea, and have smelled it out as the underhanded political shuffle that it is.
From the Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday: “By a slight 52–40 percent majority, Pennsylvania voters want to continue the state’s current winner-take-all Electoral College system, rather than switch to a system where Electoral College votes are awarded based on the winner in each congressional district, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released today.
Voters say 57–32 percent that Republicans in the State Legislature want to switch to a district-by-district count to help Republican presidential candidates, rather than to better reflect the will of the voters.”
I fear that being exposed as the sneaky cheats they are, and even knowing they’re on the unpopular side of an issue with their own voters, will not deter our GOP friends in the state capitol from attempting to ramrod this thing through at next week’s hearing.
They’ll probably be stopped from ultimately succeeding, but I can’t help but wish some of that dogmatic determination to force their own agenda down our throats would rub off on the Democrats.
I guess I’m still hoping for change.