The School Reform Commission is on track to self-destruct by the end of the year, and Mayor Kenney and City Council are in active talks to shape what the succeeding governing body will look like.
Sources with knowledge of the discussions say Council is likely to introduce legislation — possibly by early November — proposing a change to the City Charter to create a school board whose members are selected by the mayor and approved by Council.
The SRC dissolution “is a done deal,” said one source, who, like others, declined to be publicly identified because of the delicate political nature of the talks. There are many moving pieces in the Council conversations, but the sources said legislation sooner rather than later is a safe bet.
Joyce Wilkerson, the SRC chair, on Thursday night said the five-member panel could soon vote on its future, though she made no promises around an issue that has been gaining public momentum for months. Wilkerson said the SRC was in talks with various players about the issues surrounding dissolution, but declined to say who they were or describe the nature of the talks.
The Council legislation, which is expected to have Kenney’s support, would pave the way for the SRC to vote itself out of existence by the end of the year, as required to have the changes take effect for the 2018-19 school year. Pedro Rivera, Pennsylvania’s education secretary, would certify the dissolution by Jan. 1; city voters would consider a charter change in the May election, and presumably bless it.
A new school board would then be put in place for the next school year. If the SRC dissolves without the charter change, Kenney would appoint a nine-member school board.
Risks remain, and the talks are still ongoing, but it appears to be Philadelphia’s moment to seize back control of the school system that the state formally took over in 2001.
The city has funded increasing shares of the district’s budget in recent years, and is in a position of relative financial strength.
Harrisburg is locked in a budget battle and on weak financial footing generally. Republican legislators typically cool to Philadelphia have no formal say over the dissolution, and Gov. Wolf, a Democrat, has been clear about his support for local control.
If Wolf is not reelected in 2018, the delicate political calculus could change. Right now, the SRC presumably has the votes it needs to dissolve itself, with a majority of its members appointed by Kenney and Wolf.
The SRC, with three members chosen by the governor and two selected by the mayor, was created in a time of fiscal and academic tumult for the Philadelphia School District. State control was supposed to mean more money for city schools, and for a time, it did, though that has not been the case in recent years.
City schools have made some progress academically, but on the whole, they still face enormous challenges. And financially, the district is in a stronger position than it has been recently, though it projects a deficit of nearly $1 billion over the next five years.
Who pays for that shortfall is on everyone’s mind.
Dissolution would change some things, but it would not touch a problem unique to Philadelphia: The body governing the schools would lack taxing power.
Lauren Hitt, Kenney’s spokeswoman, said she would not comment on rumored legislation but said the administration has long researched school governance “and how to most fairly provide the resources and stability Philadelphia schools will need to succeed in the near- and long-term future.”
Kenney has previously expressed reservations about whether walking away from the SRC gives Harrisburg license to fund the district at lower levels. But it seems clear that the state has neither the appetite nor the pocketbook to do more.
“If the city of Philadelphia is going to be the largest funder of the district, what does that mean and how does that shape other changes that have to come with a billion-dollar increase?” Hitt asked.
City Council President Darrell Clarke, a vocal proponent of local control, declined to speak about the timeline or any potential legislation. Jane Roh, his spokeswoman, underscored the city’s commitment to the district, and said Council “will continue working hand in hand with Mayor Kenney to make sure Philadelphia public school students have what they need to learn, grow, and thrive.”
Antoine Little, chair of Our City Our Schools, a coalition of organizations pushing for an end to the SRC, said he was pleased by the public and private movement, but not yet declaring victory.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Little, father of four children in district schools. “We’re going to keep the pressure on until it’s actually dissolved.”
Steve Miskin, spokesman for the Pennsylvania House Republican Caucus, seemed doubtful that an end to the SRC would help the district.
“If the SRC is dissolved, the new school board, as it was previously, is fully appointed by the mayor, and does anyone really think that will improve the performance of the schools and provide better opportunities for the students?” Miskin said in an email.
Sen. John Eichelberger (R., Blair County), chair of the Senate Education Committee, said he was aware that the SRC was likely to vote itself out of existence soon.
“I think the people in state government would have some concerns about relinquishing control,” Eichelberger said. “A lot of things in Philadelphia have not gotten accomplished because there’s so many inner-city battles that keep them from getting accomplished. There’s a lot of territorial wars down there.”
Eichelberger, who took heat earlier this year for suggesting that students in urban districts struggle to succeed in college and should pursue vocational studies instead, said the SRC structure allows for a “broader view,” but said he likes Kenney and would support the shift to local control if it had a solid process behind it.
But, he said, it will have consequences.
“I think it would hurt the chances of continuing that kind of financial support,” Eichelberger said of SRC-era funding levels. “I think it would work against them.”