Amid songs and signs, with cheers, jeers and wistful words, the School Reform Commission took its final public actions Thursday night, capping 17 tumultuous years of governing the Philadelphia School District.
The SRC sunsets on June 30; the next day, a local board of education will assume power over a school system that enrolls 200,000 students in traditional public and charter schools, and controls a $3 billion budget.
SRC Chair Estelle Richman briefly broke into applause when she noted that the commission was holding its final meeting. Its four remaining members — the others are Fran Burns, Bill Green, and Marge Neff — now will be cheering from the sidelines, she said.
“All of us will be hoping for the very best as we hand the reins over to the new Board of Education,” she said.
Among the members of the public present, there was little warmth for the SRC and the state takeover that created it. To them, the meeting was a celebration, the culmination of years of agitating for an end to the state-created panel that weathered school closings and budget crises, labor woes and state Supreme Court battles.
“Few of us could have imagined the devastation wrought by this body,” said Lisa Haver, a retired district teacher who attended the first SRC meeting 6,019 days prior and many in between. “The SRC has been anathema to the democratic process.”
Ilene Poses, another retired educator, composed an original song to the tune of “You’re a Grand Old Flag” to mark the occasion.
“It’s a grand old day/SRC’s goin’ away/After years of controlling our schools/They’re the emblem of/No neighborhood say/Just get us to stay out of the way,” Poses sang, backed by audience members to whom she had distributed song sheets.
An original melody from Ilene Poses to the SRC to commemorate their last meeting. pic.twitter.com/LrP3xtKyuZ
— TyLisa C. Johnson (@tylisajohnson) June 21, 2018
Gail Clouden, another SRC regular who goes by the name “Mama Gail,” shouted “our children are not for sale!” as she left the meeting. She took issue with the school system’s customer service.
“We deserve better than we’ve been getting,” Clouden said.
City Councilwoman Helen Gym, a district parent who built her political reputation as an education activist, noted that “many of us have been waiting a long, long time for this transition and this day” and said the SRC presided over “some of the darkest times in our district’s history.”
At the very first SRC meeting on Dec. 28, 2001, James Nevels, a Swarthmore businessman and the sole member of the brand-new panel, awarded 10 retainer contracts to lawyers, publicists, and an insurance adviser.
At the very last SRC meeting, the panel met for over five hours in two separate sessions. It first took action on charter schools, renewing 10 charters and voting to not renew Architecture and Design Charter High School (CHAD) over the protests of dozens of supporters. District officials cited deficiencies in academics, finances, and governance.
The school will remain open while the nonrenewal process begins with a formal hearing, which will likely not happen for months. A second vote will eventually be taken by the school board before closure, but, as SRC members noted, the lengthy process means that CHAD could have time to right its ship and earn a charter renewal.
The SRC awarded millions in contracts, and drew fire from the community — parents upset that the district plans to send kindergarten and first-grade children from the overcrowded Mayfair Elementary School to Austin Meehan Middle School, and those concerned about the SRC’s action to stop admitting ninth graders to Strawberry Mansion High School.
It also passed a new discipline policy, ending suspensions of kindergarten through second-grade students. (The suspension of kindergarteners had previously been banned.)
All of the SRC members offered a valedictory, reflecting on their service and thanking Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., teachers, and students.
Neff, a retired district principal, noted the challenges of serving on the commission: “While I can’t say that it’s been the most fun I’ve had, I can say that it’s an honor to have served,” she said.
The SRC was created in a trade: more state control for more state money. But when the economy tanked, the state dollars slowed, and the commission and the city were left holding the bag, Green noted.
“The dedication, focus, persistence, and character of those who served during that challenging period” and the difficult decisions they had to make “made it possible to have our last meeting today,” Green said.
Mayor Kenney, in a statement, thanked the SRC for its work, calling its November vote to abolish itself as “a pivotal moment in our city’s history.”
Richman said she too was excited about a return to local control, but offered a caveat.
“While the players change,” she said, “the challenges do not.”