Green goes to court to regain post as SRC chair

Bill Green, in a file photograph, is in court to try to regain his post as chair of the School Reform Commission.

Bill Green, a member of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, is going to court to try to regain his position as chairman after all.

He said he was filing a Commonwealth Court suit that would challenge Gov. Wolf's legal authority to remove him as chair of the five-member SRC in March 2015.

Green said he was taking the action "to contribute more effectively to our collective work" and protect "the independence and mission" of the SRC.

"Last spring, I indicated that I would fight my illegal removal in court," Green says in an opinion piece published in Tuesday's issue of the Inquirer.

"People I respect, including teachers, colleagues, and citizens, urged me to give the new governor a chance, fearing a lawsuit at that time might exacerbate tensions in Harrisburg and risk the funding that Philadelphia's public school students urgently need. I agreed not to go to court at that time.

"In the year since, it has become painfully clear that the governor's strategies, tactics, and unwillingness to compromise have not been successful.

"I now ask the courts to rule on a simple matter of law with no facts in dispute: Namely, does the governor have the power to remove the chair of the SRC without following the law?"

Wolf's office defended the governor's actions.

"Governor Wolf used his authority, as provided by statute, to appoint the chair of the School Reform Commission and to bring new leadership to the school district, which has been devastated by education cuts," the governor's office said Tuesday morning. "Even now, after the governor has fought for greater investment in education at all levels and started to restore the funding Philadelphia lost, the district is in dire financial straits and our children are at a disadvantage. Due to misguided and poor decisions made by Harrisburg politicians, the district has been forced to lay off educators, cut important programs and slash transportation, security and other vital services. Governor Wolf will continue fighting for more funding for education and to provide a new path forward for Philadelphia's schools."

Green scheduled a news conference to announce the suit for 11 a.m. Tuesday at School District headquarters at 440 N. Broad St.

He maintains that state law says the governor cannot remove an SRC member without "proof of wrongdoing in writing." Green, a former City Council member and a lawyer, said "chair" of the all-volunteer SRC is an "office."

Green contends he was removed as chair after he voted to approve five of 39 applications for charter schools last year.

Wolf, who opposed opening more charters in the city, replaced Green with Marjorie Neff, a retired district principal and SRC member. Neff voted against all the applications.

"Gov. Wolf opposes all new charters, as do the powerful teachers' unions that lavished $1.6 million to elect him," wrote Green, a Democrat who was appointed to the SRC in January 2014 by then-Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican.

In an interview Monday, Green said that all five members of the SRC work well together. He said that he had talked to Neff on Sunday about his decision to file the suit and that the SRC would take no position on it.

"Let the courts determine what the law means," he said.

Green is being represented by the Fairness Center in Harrisburg, which describes itself as a "nonprofit public interest law firm offering free legal services to those facing unjust treatment from public employee union leaders." The center has ties to the conservative Commonwealth Foundation.

Green said that he was removed as chair without cause, and that he sees parallels with Wolf's attempt to fire Erik Arneson, a longtime GOP aide, as head of the state's Office of Open Records.

Commonwealth Court ruled that Wolf had exceeded his authority and ordered Arneson reinstated. The state Supreme Court concurred.

As far as the dispute over new charters was concerned, Green noted that the SRC is required to entertain applications every year under a 2014 law that approved a cigarette tax to support city schools.

"In advance of the vote on 39 applications, the governor instructed me to vote down any new charters," Green wrote. "Some leaders of the General Assembly directed us to approve at least 16 new charters.

"Rather than bowing to political pressure, the SRC performed its umpire-like role as charter authorizer, calling balls and strikes based on the quality of applications and on state law."

He pointed out that state law does not permit the SRC to use funding concerns as a reason for rejecting a charter application.

Green said he hopes the court rules on his suit before the terms of Neff and two other SRC members expire in January 2017. Green's appointment does not end until January 2019.

Although he said he would not be the only commission member who could assist with the transition, Green said he was the only member besides Neff who had experience being chair.

martha.woodall@phillynews.com215-854-2789@marwooda