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Mayor to seize control of Philly schools - and pay for them

Kristen A. Graham, Staff Writer

Updated: Thursday, November 2, 2017, 5:10 AM

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney will announce Thursday that he is taking back control of the city’s school district.

Mayor Kenney is set to announce that the city is taking back its public schools — and is promising to pay for them.

In an address to City Council planned for Thursday morning, the mayor will outline the end of the state-dominated School Reform Commission and a path to local control of the Philadelphia School District by July 1, administration officials confirmed Wednesday night. He will also pledge to have the city cover much of the $1 billion deficit the school system is projecting over five years.

Kenney has made education the centerpiece of his administration, and seizing control of the schools after 16 years of state takeover would cement that.

The mayor, in a letter to the public to be released Thursday, said the SRC has made for a system with no accountability. The commission also has presided over cycles of stability and investment in schools followed by instability and deep cuts that officials said must end.

“With a return to local control, the people of Philadelphia will finally be able to hold one person accountable for their school system, the mayor,” Kenney wrote.

On Nov. 16, the five-member SRC will consider a vote to dissolve itself, and Kenney is confident that it will be approved. The state Secretary of Education would certify the dissolution by Dec. 31, a move that seems a given with Gov. Wolf on record supporting local control for Philadelphia schools. The SRC would cease to exist on June 30.

It would be replaced by a nine-member school board appointed by Kenney. Those members will serve terms concurrent with the mayor’s.

Council is expected to approve legislation calling for a City Charter change that would give Council advice-and-consent power over school board nominees, but the earliest that could hit the ballot would be May. Jim Engler, deputy mayor for policy and legislation, in a briefing for reporters Wednesday said the school board should be named before then, by March.

Engler said Kenney was in full support of Council’s getting power to approve school board members, given its stepping up over the last five years to fund schools when the state would not do so.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and a growing coalition of members of the public have pushed for an end to the SRC for years, but the tipping point for Kenney was the district’s finances, Engler said.

The district has had three years of balanced budgets, but projects a deficit beginning in fiscal 2019 that, unchecked, will balloon to $1 billion by 2022. The administration said that is beyond the school system’s control, and that it is out of options — it spends just 3 percent of its budget on administration and many of its costs are fixed, while pension, health-care and charter-school costs have risen dramatically.

“If forced to make additional cuts, it will lead to things that impact school buildings directly,” Engler said.

Kenney declined to address the situation explicitly on Wednesday, but at an appearance at School District headquarters, the mayor alluded to a shift in school governance and said the district would not return to the painful era of several years ago, when it had to lay off all counselors and assistant principals, slash the number of nurses, and ax programs.

“We are not going back to the cutting days, ever,” the mayor said.

With Harrisburg historically reluctant to fund Philadelphia schools and in a budget squeeze, the city is on its own, Engler said. City officials have had conversations with Harrisburg leaders and hope to work with them on funding in the future, but the city is owning this problem, he said.

“We expect that the city will once again have to step up and provide the resources necessary to cover the deficit,” said Engler. He said Kenney in February will introduce a fiscal 2019 budget that bridges that gap, currently projected at $105 million for the 2018-19 school year.

How to pay for it?

The city will examine every option, and the mayor will choose “the best options that he thinks are reliable sources of revenue for the district,” Engler said. That includes property-tax increases, he confirmed.

Kenney, in his letter to Philadelphians, alluded to the challenge inherent in the city’s taking full responsibility for its schools.

“This transition and meeting the district’s financial needs will not be without difficulty, especially in the short term,” the mayor wrote. “It will require sacrifices from everyone. But the alternative is much worse.”

The shift from SRC to school board, which the administration is treating as a foregone conclusion, is sure to set off a frenzy of lobbying. Some members of the public are pushing hard for an elected school board; Philadelphia has not had one since the 19th century.

The Kenney administration has been against an elected school board; even advocates are split on whether an elected board is possible or preferable.

And then there’s the appointment of school board members. Before Kenney names them, he will choose a 13-member nominating panel to gather recommendations. They must be 18, voting city residents, and split among various groups — parents, experts in education, finance, public housing or other areas. Engler said the mayor will also be looking for geographical diversity.

That nominating panel will submit to the mayor three names for each seat — 27 names in all. Kenney will then choose.

Kenney, in his letter to Philadelphians, said the work is essential.

“If we decide not to pass the buck, but rather to double down on our commitment of quality schools for our kids, I’m confident that future generations of Philadelphians will be thankful for the choices we make now,” the mayor said.—

Kristen A. Graham, Staff Writer

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