New SRC chair: I don't expect huge changes

Superintendent William Hite (left) speaks at a news conference beside SRC Commissioner Bill Green, who was booted as chairman by Gov. Wolf but is appealing that decision. (SUSAN SNYDER / STAFF)

A DAY AFTER a major shake-up on the School Reform Commission, the new chair of the Philadelphia School District's governing body said she does not foresee big changes to her role or the way the district handles contract negotiations with the teachers union.

"I can't say that there'll be a change in approach," Marjorie Neff, a career educator, said about bargaining with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. "All of the SRC members are committed to making sure we have a contract that is fiscally responsible and giving [Superintendent] Dr. [William] Hite the work rules he thinks he needs in order to implement his vision."

Neff was named chair of the five-member commission by Gov. Wolf in a surprise move Sunday night, a decision that rankled some high-ranking Republicans in Harrisburg and was questioned for its legality in some quarters.

Republican House Speaker Mike Turzai said he and the leadership were assessing Wolf's decision, which he labeled as "punitive" because the SRC under Bill Green had approved five charter schools.

"We're seriously looking at the issue and taking it under advisement. My understanding was the legislation was designed for a level of independence on the board," said Turzai, who said he had not signed on to any lawsuit.

He said Wolf "is about protecting teachers unions."

Susan DeJarnett, a law professor at Temple University, said she believes the governor acted within his authority.

"My opinion is that the law is not entirely clear, but the way I would read it is that the governor is not entitled to remove a commissioner unless it's due to 'malfeasance or misfeasance,' " DeJarnett said.

"He's not removing him as commissioner," she said. And, according to the law, the governor is allowed to select the chair of the commission.

Green, a former City Councilman and lawyer, said he will challenge the move in court, but had not filed a complaint as of yesterday. He believes he remains the chairman, but also said he would not interfere with Neff carrying out her duties.

"I'm still chair of the commission," Green insisted yesterday. "Commissioner Neff and I have a terrific working relationship. I'm going to work with her. I'm not going to insist on having a gavel at meetings or other things, but as I've said I don't believe this was a legal action and we'll just let the courts resolve that while we continue to work together for the benefit of Philadelphia's children."

The district resumed negotiations with the PFT over the weekend after 21 months of unfruitful talks and an ongoing court dispute. Both sides accused the other of backtracking on tentative agreements.

A former principal who also spent 38 years in the classroom, Neff acknowledged that "teachers are not the enemy," but said the SRC must be fiscally responsible.

"I think it's important for us all to be realistic about what we can and cannot do financially and realizing we're talking about our greatest resource," she said by phone from Florida.

Jerry Jordan, president of the PFT, applauded the leadership change, but said he didn't know what the future holds now that the new governor has spoken. "We hope [Harrisburg] will treat Philadelphia fairly."

It is unclear how the move could impact the SRC in Harrisburg where it, along with Superintendent William Hite and Mayor Nutter, will have to advocate for more funding.

"I can't predict how other people are going to respond," Neff said. "I'm hoping that we can continue to work with the legislators and with the governor."

For his part, Green agreed that commissioners would remain united in advocating for more dollars.

"I can assure you that the members of the commission will do everything they can to prevent that from happening," he said.

The other SRC members are Feather Houstoun, Farah Jimenez and Sylvia Simms.


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