The members of the soon-to-be-extinct School Reform Commission were often businesspeople or lawyers — politically connected types, and dominated by men.
The soon-to-take-power Philadelphia Board of Education is heavy on teachers, people with social-service backgrounds, women, and very few people well-known in education or government circles until Mayor Kenney called their names Wednesday morning.
The nine new members of the board have impeccable resumés, and are being greeted largely with enthusiasm. But the panel has not been universally hailed.
Activists who helped push for a return of the district to local control were left off the list, and no one directly connected to the city’s most troubled schools is on the panel.
Miguel Andrade, an official with Juntos, an organization that advocates for Latino and immigrant rights, said the board’s composition was “disheartening.” Juntos is part of Our City Our Schools, a coalition of city organizations that pushed hard for years to end the SRC and put forward its own slate of school board candidates — immigrants, parents with children in struggling schools, even students.
“We’ve been actively organizing and have been doing a lot of the work that led to this moment of local control,” said Andrade. “The people who are most affected by these decisions should have a voice on that board.”
The majority of Philadelphia district schools are low-performing, scoring below a 50 out of 100 on the school system’s own internal performance metric. Citywide, 33 percent of children read on grade level, and 19 percent meet state standards in math.
That gets to the heart of Sylvia Simms’ worry for the panel.
Simms was a stunning choice when former Mayor Michael Nutter picked her for an SRC seat in 2013. She was a former bus attendant, a woman without a college education whose grandchild attended a North Philadelphia school whose academic state was so shaky the district eventually proposed closing it.
“On this board, I don’t see parents that have children in failing schools, parents who bring that perspective to the table,” said Simms, who now heads a lobbying group that often advocates for charter school expansion. “I see a lot of people connected to universities, a lot of power in this group. The majority of the district is parents with children in failing schools. Are they going to represent these folks, too?”
The new school board members are Julia Danzy, Leticia Egea-Hinton, Mallory Fix Lopez, Lee Huang, Maria McColgan, Christopher McGinley, Angela McIver, Wayne Walker, and Joyce Wilkerson.
McIver’s children attend Central High and Penn Alexander, a district school in West Philadelphia that often lands at the top of academic performance metrics, and which gets extra funding from the University of Pennsylvania, and Huang also has children at Penn Alexander. McColgan has children in Philadelphia Academy Charter, also a high-performing school. (Fix Lopez has a young child who will eventually attend Childs, a neighborhood school in South Philadelphia.)
The board’s makeup was dictated in part by who was nominated: Kenney had to choose from the 45 candidates vetted by his nominating panel. Jane Slusser, Kenney’s chief of staff, said the mayor and his advisers paid close attention to the mix — who had experience running large organizations, who had been actively involved in their community.
But it was not just coincidence that the board has a heavy focus on human services and education — Danzy and Egea-Hinton are trained as social workers, McColgan is a pediatrician, and McColgan, Fix Lopez, McGinley, and McIver have all worked as teachers.
“It wasn’t something that we didn’t notice,” said Slusser, whose boss has proclaimed education the centerpiece of his administration. “It was felt that it would be a strength. We have a lot of understanding and experience of what’s going on in our kids’ lives outside the classroom, and how that affects what’s going on inside the classroom.”
When the state-controlled SRC took over the district in 2001, the school system’s finances were in shambles. After years of ups and downs, they have now stabilized, thanks in large part to cash infusions from the city and a forthcoming planned tax increase that would net the district nearly $1 billion over five years. Michael Masch, an original SRC member and, later, the district’s chief financial officer, took note of the new-look board.
“The first SRC was very business-dominated,” Masch said. “Now we’re kind of swinging in a different direction. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”
Kendra Brooks sat on the nominating panel that sifted through 500 applications before whittling the list to 45. The choices Kenney ultimately made, said Brooks, a district parent and member of Parents United for Public Education, were safe ones — people with strong resumés and relevant experience who interviewed well.
“He picked folks that weren’t controversial,” said Brooks. “But I would have loved to see more activists as a part of this list. I feel like he made choices that were in the middle of the road of the group that we had.”
Going up against people who have served on philanthropic boards, run large organizations, started businesses, or have law degrees is tough, Brooks said, and the activist community “needs to do more to prepare our leaders so they can compete on paper with corporate people, doctors, and others.”
Finding a balance for the board was a challenge, Brooks said. School board jobs are unpaid and require a serious time commitment — meetings at least monthly and sometimes more, plus committee assignments, community obligations, and the mountain of work that goes into running a complicated public organization — making it difficult for hourly workers, people for whom finding and paying for child care is a stretch, and others with economic challenges.
“There were good folks paying attention to representation across gender, race, and class, but it was very hard, especially when we got into class,” she said.
The board has already begun the work of getting its arms around the school system, which has a $3.2 billion budget and educates more than 200,000 children in traditional public and charter schools. The nine have their first orientation session this weekend, and for them to receive sensitive information about the district, they will be sworn in, though they will lack governing authority until July 1.
Though some have criticized the board’s makeup, Kenney said he was thrilled by it.
“We got the best mix that we were able to get based on who had come forward in the nominating process,” said Slusser.
Members of the school board will hold several community listening sessions beginning later this month, but those are a start, said city officials. A parent and community advisory board is being contemplated.
“We are looking for ways to continue to build on the enthusiasm of all the people who reached out to put themselves forward to be on the board,” said Slusser. “While these nine folks have been chosen to govern, they are not the only people who are going to make a difference in the schools. We want to involve as many people as we can moving forward, and we want to make it real involvement, not superficial.”
People are already lining up to do just that.
“We may be disappointed, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to stop,” said Andrade. “This board has to listen, and it has to be accountable.”