Wilkerson joins SRC as its chair

Joyce Wilkerson is Mayor Kenney's pick for the School Reform Commission. She was sworn in Thursday morning in the mayor's office, and is shown here with Kenney.

Joyce Wilkerson, a Temple University official and former top aide to Mayor John F. Street, joined the School Reform Commission on Thursday.

Shortly after Mayor Kenney named her to the five-member panel, Gov. Wolf appointed her as its chair.

The mayor has known Wilkerson, 66, since his days on City Council. Her know-how, calm, and willingness to speak truth to power were impressive then, Kenney said, and will be invaluable in one of the city's toughest jobs.

"She's really smart, and she's dedicated to kids," Kenney said.

Wilkerson said she didn't deliberate long before accepting Kenney's offer. Her early work was in housing, and then she moved into government before joining Temple. At a recent meeting there, a topic was Kenderton Elementary, the Tioga school roiled by chaos.

"All roads seem to lead back to education," Wilkerson said. "This is really important."

At Temple, Wilkerson handles community relations and is the point person in the university's quest to build a new stadium in North Philadelphia. She was also key in Temple's deal to buy the former William Penn High School on North Broad Street.

Wilkerson, who was trained as an attorney, spent the early part of her career working for Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. She also worked at the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority.

She worked for Street during his years as City Council president and mayor, and was key to his Neighborhood Transformation Initiative and the city's takeover of PGW. She also was chief of the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority after Hurricane Katrina.

"Joyce has got the fiscal experience, she's got government experience, she's got the political experience," said the mayor. That last will be particularly key as she presides over a board responsible for running a school system with 200,000 students yet has no revenue-generating power.

In short, "you need to know who's mad at who," Kenney said.

Wilkerson, who lives in East Falls and has no children, said Temple fully supports her taking on the SRC job.

As for the SRC itself, Wilkerson said she hopes it goes away at some point in the not-too-distant future.

"I think there ought to be local control," she said. "It needs to happen and it needs to happen sooner rather than later."

Wilkerson is replacing Marjorie Neff, a former district principal, who adamantly opposed charter-school expansion on fiscal grounds.

"I'm not going to say never," Wilkerson said of her view on charter expansion and approval. But, she said, "charters are pitted against traditional public schools under the current funding structure," and that needs to change.

"We've got to fix the charter law in Pennsylvania," she said.

Also tops on her list is getting a new contract for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which has been without a deal for three years.

Wilkerson is not the only new SRC member. Wolf nominated Estelle Richman, a former federal and state official, to the seat vacated by Feather Houstoun. Gubernatorial picks need state Senate confirmation, and Richman is unlikely to join the board until 2017.

Wilkerson walks into an unusual situation. Commissioner Bill Green, formerly SRC chair himself, was stripped of that title by Wolf and replaced with Neff. He has sued to regain the title; the matter is now before Commonwealth Court.

Wilkerson said that she does not know Green well but that "he's committed to the kids at the end of the day."

Kenney's take? Wilkerson will do just fine.

"You handled Council during the cranky times," the mayor said to her.

The mayor will name another SRC member early next year, when Sylvia Simms' term expires. Kenney said he has a short list of people he's considering to replace Simms.

kgraham@phillynews.com

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Philadelphia Media Network is hosting a public forum on the issue of school governance, along with the Public School Notebook. The event is Dec. 8, and free to the public, though you must register. For more information and registration, go to http://bit.ly/2eZ9o5Y.