Philly's SRC could call dissolution vote by year's end

Members of the public demand an end to the School Reform Commission during a meeting at School District of Philadelphia, 440 N. Broad St. on Thursday afternoon October 20, 2017.

The School Reform Commission could vote to disband itself by year’s end, the panel’s chairwoman said Thursday night.

After another SRC meeting where dozens of members of the public angrily called for an end to the body, Chairwoman Joyce Wilkerson said the five members were keenly aware of the timeline in front of them: To kill the SRC and shift to local control by the 2018-19 school year, they would need to vote themselves out of existence by the end of December.

“I think we need to look seriously at the issues,” said Wilkerson.

She made no guarantees but said members were actively engaged in conversations with the city and state about the SRC’s future. Her admission that a vote by year’s end was possible was the first time such concrete shape has been given to the idea of an end to the 16-year SRC era.

“Before I joined the SRC, I said I thought local control was important,” Wilkerson said. “I believe in that direct accountability.”

Three SRC members are now nominated by the governor, who also chooses the chair; two are appointed by the mayor. State control of the Philadelphia School District was supposed to bring continued extra resources to city schools, but generally, it has not.

At the panel’s direction, interim general counsel Miles Shore laid out to the public what would need to happen for the SRC, which was created by state law in 2001, to end: It would essentially need to kill itself.

By the end of the year, the body would have to introduce a resolution recommending dissolution. (It could do so at one of two action meetings scheduled before the end of the year. It could also hold a special meeting.)

The state secretary of education, Pedro Rivera, would then have to issue a declaration to end the SRC by Jan. 1.

Under current law, after this school year, control of the school district would revert to a nine-member school board appointed by the mayor, as laid out in Philadelphia’s Home Rule Charter.

Mayor Kenney, who has in the past expressed reservations about whether ending the SRC would worsen the district’s financial situation, would have to appoint a 13-member nomination panel to come up with potential school board members. Twenty-seven candidates would be put forth, with Kenney getting the final say.

School board members would typically be appointed for four-year terms, but the initial members would serve only until the end of Kenney’s term, Shore said.

An end to the SRC’s control over the district would kill a state law that prevents Philadelphia teachers from striking. And it would also end the “maintenance of effort” proviso that prohibits the city from lowering taxes or ending grants to the school district.

“The city has never backtracked” in its funding, said Wilkerson, who was named to the SRC by the mayor. (In fact, it has boosted funding by millions over the last several years.)

But credit-rating agencies like the maintenance of effort guarantee, and ending it could cause the district to incur higher borrowing costs.

The school board would also lose the power to cancel contracts. The SRC has that, though state Supreme Court rulings have thrown cold water on that in some cases.

Another question mark is the district’s impending financial cliff. It will soon run a deficit, and by the end of five years see a $900 million spending gap if corrections are not made. The SRC was created in a time of great financial distress, and to bring order to a chaotic system.

“We’re very serious about protecting the stability of the district,” Wilkerson said. “We cannot have a stable system of public education with that kind of deficit.”

Also unclear is how an end to the SRC would be received in Harrisburg, which ostensibly has more control over the system with the current panel in place and is currently locked in a budget battle.

Wilkerson declined to say with whom SRC members have discussed their plans for the future of the school district, or characterize the talks.

SRC members had questions for Shore: Would the SRC have any say over what takes its place? Estelle Richman asked. No, Shore said.

Others asked about contracts (they would still be in place, though the new school board technically could reject or revise them.)

Commissioner Farah Jimenez wanted to know whether the school board would have taxing power. The SRC does not.

No, Shore said. It too would be unelected and lack the ability to raise its own revenue, unlike every other school board in the state.

There are some certainties, but, as Wilkerson said, “A lot of this is uncharted territory.”

As they have at SRC meetings for months, members of the public bitterly denounced the panel and said it couldn’t end soon enough. At one point, chanting audience members interrupted the meeting, shouting, “Tick! Tick,” mimicking a clock counting down to the end of the SRC’s life.

Mollie Michel, a Southwark Elementary parent, said a continuation of the body would endanger children.

“Now is the time for the city to take back control of our school district,” she said. “There is no better time to restore local control.”

The SRC voted 3-1 at the meeting to nonrenew Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School, which officials said had issues with academics and operations.  Jimenez opposed the vote, saying the district was shutting too many schools operated by people of color.

Larry Jones, head of Richard Allen and a statewide leader on the charter scene, disputed the district’s contentions about his school, which is in Southwest Philadelphia.

“We’re not being treated fairly,” Jones said. The school will have a formal revocation hearing before the SRC takes a final vote; it will remain open in the interim.