School Reform Commission still a destructive agency

Hanako Franz, center with sign, yells 'SCR has got to go' during a small protest in front of Philadelphia School District headquarters on Thursday, October 13, 2016.

In April, the Inquirer/Daily News conducted a reader survey on whether City Council should hold hearings on Council’s $17 million budget.  No surprise that most who responded voted “Yes.” Taxpayers want to know how elected officials are spending their money, and they want to have their say about it.

Most Philadelphians probably feel the same about appointed officials, especially those who hold the purse strings on a budget that totals almost $3 billion. The School Reform Commission, after 16 years of everything but reform, continues to earn its reputation as the city’s least transparent, most destructive governmental body, second only, perhaps, to the Philadelphia Parking Authority.

My reader survey would ask these questions:

Should the SRC release the district’s $2.9 budget before the public hearing?

The district’s first official budget hearing on April 20 opened with the unveiling of its lump-sum budget. Alliance members who requested that it be released before the meeting, so that the public could review it and ask informed questions, were told by the SRC that it was “ever-changing” and would not be available until the meeting.

Should the SRC hold hearings on contracts over $10 million? How about $50 million?

At its Feb. 16 meeting, the SRC approved two contracts for food services totaling $90 million.  No hearings were held; there wasn’t even a staff presentation at the meeting itself. In March, the SRC renewed its contract with Durham bus service, again without deliberation, for $69 million. A subsequent news story revealed that the district had just sent this company, which it hired after outsourcing all of its bus services, a legal notification that it was in breach of contract. Several parents had complained in writing and at SRC meetings that their children were not being picked up on time or at all several days a week.

Should the SRC hold hearings on reviewing and amending its official policies at 9 a.m.?

The newly created Policy Committee has scheduled its meetings for a time when the teachers who must implement the policies, and the students and parents who will be affected by them, are unable to attend or provide any insight on how the policies could best be formulated and carried out.

Should the SRC be allowed to vote without telling the people exactly what they are voting on? 

The SRC has decided that in some cases it will reveal only the topic to be voted on.  Full resolutions are composed and posted after the meeting.  The official SRC minutes then report that those are the resolutions they actually voted on.  Like to see City Council or the state Legislature try that one.

Should the SRC be allowed to ignore its own rules?

At an April meeting with only three commissioners present, one left early, without notice; the SRC, in violation of its own bylaws, continued without a quorum.  At a meeting the following week, the same commissioner left again, missing not only most of the public speakers but an hourlong staff presentation on the sole topic under consideration.

Should the SRC schedule a meeting in which it plans to decide on renewals of 23 charter schools with less than a week’s notice?

The district’s budget shows that it will spend $894 million — about one-third of the budget — on charters next year. Shouldn’t the SRC allow enough time for those paying the tab to read the reports? They may want to ask why schools that have met none of the standards are being recommended for renewal.

Should the SRC publicly deliberate before voting on significant financial, academic and policy resolutions?

The SRC approved contracts totaling $149.2 million at its February meeting; it spent $173.1 million in March. Resolutions are voted on in batches of 10 or 15, with little explanation of why.

How do we reform the School Reform Commission? By abolishing it. Philadelphians have the right, as all other Pennsylvanians do, to decide who will represent them on an elected school board.

Lisa Haver is a retired teacher and co-founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools.