Democrat Tom Wolf said Thursday he would push, if elected governor, to abolish the School Reform Commission and transfer state control of Philadelphia schools to a locally elected school board.
Wolf took exception to the dramatic step the SRC took last week when it canceled its contract with the teachers' union and imposed terms requiring members to pay 10 percent to 13 percent of the cost of their health-care benefits; currently they pay nothing.
"I'm against what [the SRC] did," Wolf said. "What I would do is restore the funding to the Philadelphia school system that would make unpalatable choices like that unnecessary."
Wolf discussed the issue during a 70-minute meeting with members of The Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News editorial boards. In the wide-ranging session, he also said he opposed privatizing the state liquor system and reiterated his refusal to add specifics to his income-tax plan, saying it would be "dishonest" to do so before he can look at state revenue data.
He said it was wrong that Philadelphia is the only school district in the state without an elected board of education. A board chosen by voters would be preferable to one appointed by the mayor, Wolf said.
"The problem in a city like Philadelphia, or in any city, the priorities of the council and the mayor, education is not necessarily going to be number one," he said. "You've got police, fire, sanitation, and other things that can take precedence."
In a May forum on educational issues during the Democratic primary, Wolf said he wanted to get rid of the SRC, a state commission created by state law, and that his "preference" was for local control by an elected board.
He talked about the issue in more detail Thursday. He did not specify how he would replace the savings the SRC says it will reap, and redirect to classrooms, from the health-care changes being imposed on unionized teachers and staff.
Control would gradually be restored to the city under the plan Wolf sketched. The mayor would appoint board members in a transitional phase, and at the end of their terms, their seats would be open to election.
"Democracy, for all its flaws, is the best option of the bunch," Wolf said.
Returning the district to city control could be complicated legally and politically.
The law providing for the state takeover of the schools was Act 46 of 1998. It superseded the City Charter, which had established the School District of Philadelphia and the Board of Education that governed it.
Act 46 specified that the School Reform Commission could be dissolved by the state secretary of education - a gubernatorial appointee - with the concurrence of a majority of the five-member SRC.
Ellen Mattleman Kaplan, interim head of the Committee of Seventy, a nonpartisan watchdog group, said she believed that if the SRC were eliminated under Act 46, its powers and duties would revert to the Board of Education under the charter.
If Wolf wins, however, "that doesn't mean [he] can walk into office in January and obliterate the SRC," Kaplan said Thursday.
Three of the SRC members - who serve five-year terms - are appointed by the governor. The remaining two are picked by the mayor.
Chairman Bill Green and member Farah Jimenez were appointed by Gov. Corbett this year. Corbett appointed Feather Houstoun in 2011.
Wolf could press the Corbett appointees to side with him or resign, and that could clear the path to local control, Kaplan said.
(Asked to react to Wolf's call for abolishing the SRC, Corbett campaign spokesman Billy Pitman said the panel was not meant to be permanent, writing in an e-mail: "The ultimate goal is to see the district returned to local control.")
The legislature could also rewrite Act 46. State Sen. Mike Stack, a Philadelphia Democrat now running for lieutenant governor, has previously introduced legislation to get rid of the SRC and create an elected board that would oversee the district.
But both chambers of the General Assembly are controlled by Republicans, and "what they can do and what they will do politically are two separate things," Kaplan said.
Voided teachers' pact frees up $15M
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