At raucous meeting, SRC votes to extend Hite's contract through 2022

The Philadelphia School Reform Commission voted Thursday night to lock in William R. Hite Jr. as superintendent for five more years.

Hite, who is paid $300,000 a year, is now under contract through August 2022. The vote was 4-0, with Chair Marge Neff absent.

He will receive raises only if Philadelphia School District teachers do, and at the same rate. Teachers have been without a contract since August 2013.

The superintendent has generally earned plaudits - Mayor Nutter said Thursday that "stability and sound leadership is precisely what the district needs to move forward and continue to make improvements in the quality of education it provides to our city's children," and praised Hite's leadership.

The SRC's vote, Hite said, was a sign of its confidence in the direction he is taking the district. Despite constant fiscal pressure, he has pushed innovation and equity.

"I am thrilled to be able to continue that work," he said.

But Hite, 53, fielded plenty of slings and arrows at a raucous meeting. Some called out the superintendent as disregarding the community's wishes, for closing schools, and for privatizing some district services.

"He has brought a degree of chaos and turmoil the School District has not seen before," said Karel Kilimnik, a retired district teacher, who spoke of the "disaster he has rained down on all of us."

Catherine Blunt, a city resident, called the contract extension "untimely and ill-conceived," and suggested that its timing - just before Mayor-elect Jim Kenney takes office - was sneaky.

Kenney has expressed support for Hite and has echoed the call for district stability.

As with most SRC meetings of late, Thursday's was long - nearly four hours - and contentious, with frequent and bitter back-and-forth, particularly between charter-school proponents and those opposed to a district plan to give three struggling schools to charter operators.

Several speakers offered testimony in song. One, district teacher George Bezanis, wrote a poem in the style of "A Visit From St. Nicholas," decrying the current state of schools and envisioning the SRC's dissolution.

(A sample: "School closures had become the disturbing new norm / With no nurses or libraries to weather the storm.")

Norma Esquiline, a parent who said she was attending an SRC meeting for the first time, said the conduct at the meeting made her uncomfortable. "This is embarrassing," she said. "I was really going to walk out."

The meeting also saw Robert McGrogan, principals' union president, speak in stark, sharp terms about district leadership. His remarks were prompted by the recent removal of two principals from volatile schools.

"Every cut that has been made makes schools more and more vulnerable, and you are ignoring the signals and our direct requests for relief," McGrogan said. "School principals are being held accountable for events that occur in their schools when, in fact, you are responsible for creating the conditions we face."

Many days, McGrogan said, principals are unable to perform their most basic job function: keeping students safe.

"We get myopic dictates from every department, and our supervisors add excessive accountability measures in an effort to quantify our level of proficiency," McGrogan said. "Principals are your keepers, and each needs to be selectively negligent to some high-priority demand in order to deal with another."

Neither the SRC nor Hite offered any rebuttal.

The commission also voted to pay up to $280,500 to Foundations Inc., an educational-services firm with ties to State Rep. Dwight Evans, to temporarily fill two assistant superintendent jobs.

There was some blowback on the Foundations contract, but Commissioner Feather Houstoun, filling in for Neff - who left the meeting unexpectedly, citing an emergency - stressed that Foundations would not be running schools, just providing personnel.

Naomi Wyatt, who oversees human relations for the district, said that Foundations is able to provide assistant superintendents who have both the necessary academic credentials and district experience. A number of former Philadelphia principals and others work for Foundations.

The contract lasts through the end of the academic year, or until permanent people for those jobs are hired.

District leaders again drove home the need for a state budget. Hite has said that without Harrisburg's passing a spending plan, the system could run out of cash Jan. 29.

Before she had to leave the meeting, Neff said she wanted one thing this holiday season: "for our state lawmakers to do their job." Pennsylvania is nearly six months past its own deadline for a budget.

A deal appears likely, but Commissioner Bill Green noted that even with $100 million more for city schools, the compromise now on the table could hurt the district.

Provisions passed by the Senate would take away from the district up to five struggling schools a year, likely handing them to charter organizations.

Green, a quality-charter proponent, said he feared what that would mean for the district's ability to plan for charter growth.

It would also mean changes to the way charters are approved and can grow. Green called it "a back door to unlimited charter growth without quality authorization."

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