Philly's new school board has 27 nominees. Whom will Mayor Kenney pick?

Wendell Pritchett (center) speaks to fellow members of the Philadelphia School Board nominating panel on Feb. 26.

Reaching across the city to tap men and women with a diverse range of experiences — from activists to businesspeople, from government veterans to founders of nonprofits — the school board nominating panel on Monday forwarded the names of 27 people for Mayor Kenney to consider to run the Philadelphia School District.

Kenney will choose nine board members by the end of March, and the new body will begin running the school system after the School Reform Commission dissolves on June 30. But their work will begin much sooner: Board members are expected to start learning the nuts and bolts of the district and its nearly $3 billion budget as soon as they’re named.

“Thanks to the panel,” Kenney said in a statement Monday, “I am confident that in the coming weeks I will be able to appoint a knowledgeable, committed and diverse Board of Education that will oversee our schools going forward and ensure that every child in Philadelphia can access a quality education.”

The 13-member nominating panel combed through 500 applications and resumes in less than two months, interviewing about 80 to arrive at the final list, which it voted on Monday afternoon at only its second public meeting, held at City Hall.

Two of the nominees – Chris McGinley and Joyce Wilkerson – are current SRC members, and at least one, if not both, are likely to secure spots. Kenney named both of them to the SRC, and has said he wants some continuity between the two boards. If they are chosen, it’s unclear how that process would work, as they are unable to serve as SRC and school board members concurrently.

Others have experience in the school district or in city government. Loree Jones was a former Philadelphia managing director and SRC chief of staff who now holds that role at Rutgers-Camden; Folasade Olanipekun-Lewis was a former school system chief financial officer, who also worked for City Council. Suzanne Biemiller was director of policy, planning and coordination for former Mayor Michael Nutter.

Stacy Dutton is a former investment manager who now heads the Lantern Theater Company. Susan DeJarnatt is a Temple Law School professor who has researched charter law extensively; Tonya Bah is a district parent and former federal government employee who has been unafraid to blast the school system in public.

Roberta Trombetta is a lawyer who runs a private school for children in foster care. Lee Huang is a vice-president at Econsult Solutions. Susanna Greenberg is a former board chair of Independence Charter School and a faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania’s law school. Laura Boyce, a former district and charter school teacher and principal, works for a national nonprofit that helps educators to become school leaders.

The other nominees include:

Sarah-Ashley Andrews, Jenne Ayers, Tonya Bah, Dario Bellot, Julia Danzy, Letitia Egea-Hinton, Mallory Fix Lopez, Anuj Gupta, Rotonya Carr, Lee Huang, Renee Hughes, Chad Lassiter, Maria McColgan, Angela McIver, Sharon Parker, Akil Parker, and Patricia Wellenbach.

Kenney now has 10 days to go back to the nominating panel to ask for more names if he feels a deeper pool is needed.

“I am deeply confident in this group,” nominating panel chair Wendell Pritchett said after the vote. “It’s an amazing group.”

Still, Pritchett said, the panel was bound by the nominations it received – potential board members either raised their hands or were nominated by someone else.

“I wish that we had more applications from more areas of the city,” said Pritchett. He said he wished more people who lived in parts of North and Northeast Philadelphia were among the group the nominating panel had to choose from.

In arriving at the list, Mayor Kenney had charged the panel with considering four broad areas: organizational acumen, commitment to education, commitment to diversity, inclusion and community empowerment, and ethics and integrity.

Still, the panel was bound by the nominations it received, Pritchett stressed.

The nominating panel process has come under fire from some advocates, who say that it operated in secrecy and does not bode well for the new board.

Camera icon SYDNEY SCHAEFER / Staff Photographer
Diane Payne speaks before the school board nominating panel during its public session at City Hall on Monday, February 26, 2018.

“There’s a feeling of backroom deals, power wrangling, and one-man control,” retired Philadelphia teacher Diane Payne told the nominating panel before it voted.

Kenney has said the nominating panel was honor-bound to make what essentially were hiring decisions in private.

“There are certain personnel issues that can’t be discussed in the open,” the mayor has said, promising that “there will be plenty of transparency.”

Nominating panel members rejected the notion that Kenney controlled their work. Kendra Brooks, a district parent and advocate, said the mayor was “hands-off” in the process.

“I’ve been involved in politics a long time, but I don’t think I was ever involved in anything more straightforward,” said Patrick J. Eiding, a nominating panel member and president of the Philadelphia Council AFL-CIO.

Others urged the board to consider the interests of all children, a statement on the current sharp tensions between the charter community and the school district.

Maurice Jenkins, a parent with children in a Mastery Charter school, said it was important that whomever makes the cut for the new board make sure “that the charter community not be discriminated against, as they have in the past.”

Kenney, in a brief appearance before the board meeting began, said he looked forward to seeing the list; Jane Slusser, his chief of staff, emphasized that the mayor had not been privy to the names prior to the board’s vote.

Next, she said, staff will comb through the 27 applicants’ resumes and invite some to interview with the mayor’s senior staff. Kenney himself will eventually meet with the finalists, she said.

Some are known in City Hall, and others are fresh faces.

“The exciting thing about this is there are people on this list who nobody knows who they are,” said Slusser.

After some kind of informal consultation with City Council — which could be made more prickly given the current City Hall battle over who, once named, controls how members are removed from the school board — Kenney hopes to name the board by March 23. Board  members selected for the unpaid position will serve terms concurrent with the mayor’s.

Derren Magnum, a member of the nominating panel, warned that whomever the mayor chooses won’t have a magic wand to right the ills of the school system, with its 130,000 students in more than 200 traditional public schools.

To fix system-wide problems, “it’s going to take a lot more than nine people,” Magnum said.

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