Are Kenney, Council in a power struggle over Philly's new school board?

Mayor Kenney and Council President Darrell L. Clarke: at odds over the the new school board?

Once in lockstep over the process of returning control of Philadelphia’s schools from the state-dominated School Reform Commission to a local school board, it appears Mayor Kenney and City Council President Darrell L. Clarke are at odds, setting up a potential power struggle with significant fallout.

The Council, with the mayor’s blessing, had always planned to pass legislation allowing voters to consider a City Charter change that would give Council approval power over the board members. A charter change is likely to be on the ballot this spring.

But with Clarke’s backing, a bill to change the charter was introduced Thursday that would make it more difficult for Kenney to remove school board members — a move seen by some as the Council president’s attempt to wrest authority from the mayor.

The City Charter says plainly that school board members “serve at the pleasure of the mayor.” The proposed legislation would amend that to say board members “may be removed by the Mayor for cause, including, but not limited to, neglect of duty, misconduct in office, conflicts of interest, inability to discharge the powers or duties of office, or serious violations of law.” This would give school board members at odds with the mayor due process — and turn the process for removing them into a protracted affair.

On Wednesday, Kenney sent a letter to the Council urging its members to reject the change. In the letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Inquirer and Daily News, the mayor said the proposed language change in the charter leads the city down a dangerous path, allowing potentially dangerous situations to fester. He cited the case of former state Board of Education president Larry Wittig, who has been accused of past sexual misconduct but still serves as president of a local school board.

“Students, parents and our communities expect the return to local control to mean those who oversee the School District will be more accountable to them … ,” the mayor wrote. “Simply put, for-cause removal takes from the public something we owe them in abundance: accountability. And it offers them nothing in return.”

But some Council members, including Clarke, view Kenney’s wish to have sole authority over removal of school board members in a dark light.

Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who introduced the legislation Thursday, said she understood the mayor was opposed to it, but she believed it would pass anyway.

“If the mayor came to Council and said, ‘This person has committed this crime [and should be removed], we would support him,'” Blackwell said. “I think that the mayor and City Council would think alike on someone trying to do the right thing by the schoolchildren of Philadelphia.”

Jim Engler, Kenney’s policy and legislation deputy, rejected the suggestion that Kenney was trying to assert power, since he has it now: The City Charter as it now stands gives the appointing authority — the mayor — the power to remove board members for cause.

“It’s just the law as it stands,” said Engler. “That’s the process we’d like to return to. We’ve been working closely with members of Council over the past few months on these amendments, and we had no awareness of this until Tuesday. We’re honestly surprised.”

Kenney has been clear since he publicly announced his intention to take back the city’s schools from 16 years of state control: Split accountability, the model under the SRC, has not worked.

“When the SRC dissolves itself, and we return to a school board appointed by the mayor, you can hold me and future mayors accountable for the success or failure of our schools,” the mayor said in introducing his intention to push for SRC dissolution in November.

“The mayor is willing to put his position on the line and be held fully accountable for the future of our schools,” Engler said. “Why anyone would want to strip that from him, I have no idea.”

Late Thursday afternoon, Clarke shot back with his own letter to Council, emphasizing that the proposed change would guarantee an independent board. He wrote that the for-cause requirement would “provide some assurance that the members of the Board of Education can make independent decisions that they believe are in the best interest of the City’s children — even if the Mayor or Council disagrees.”

That Kenney and Council are already at odds before a single school board member has been selected could be a sign that district governance might not run as smoothly as initially billed.

Larry Ceisler, a longtime city political observer now working in public relations, said that it is “obvious that Council wants to be an equal partner in the formation and composition of the school board,” but in the pre-SRC days, “it was never the intention for Council to be an equal partner.”

Ceisler said he understood Kenney’s move in writing the letter.

“This is his political bet,” Ceisler said. “This is his legacy. He needs to have some unilateral authority here.”

While Council and the mayor tussle behind the scenes, the process is moving forward.

A nominating panel has been vetting applicants for the new nine-member board, which officials have said will be selected by the end of March and take over governing July 1. Kenney alone now has the final say in who gets the board seats; any charter change could not be introduced in time to affect the first board selections.

The bill introduced Thursday would also change the rules for who could serve on the board. Under the current law, school board members must be residents and registered voters in the city. The charter change would keep the residency requirement but remove the voter clause — essentially opening up the possibility of board service to those not eligible to vote, for reasons of immigration status or otherwise.