The nominating committee for Philadelphia’s new school board is scheduled Monday to recommend a list of its first members to Mayor Kenney. The board will replace the state-appointed School Reform Commission.
Unfortunately, that may come with Kenney and City Council President Darrell L. Clarke engaged in an argument that could affect how much independence school board members will have.
At the urging of Kenney, Clarke, and countless others, the SRC voted in November to dissolve. Only the SRC had the authority to abolish itself, under the state law creating it in 2001. It will continue to exist until the new board officially takes over.
That’s scheduled to happen July 1, after the new board becomes operational. Several loose ends remain to be tied; including changing the city’s Home Rule Charter in a referendum that is planned to coincide with the May 15 primary election.
The needed legislation for the referendum has been sitting in limbo ever since it was passed by a Council committee two months ago. That delay may grow even longer if Kenney and Clarke don’t end their argument over how to dismiss bad school board members.
The school board legislation says it will be appointed by the mayor with the “advice and consent” of Council. Clarke also wants Council to play a role in any board member’s dismissal by requiring their removal only for cause, not merely at the pleasure of the mayor. But Kenney says sharing dismissal authority would deprive the public of the direct accountability he promised in asking the SRC to end its life.
The debate seems to take for granted that a school board member will have to be fired. Maybe that’s a given in Philadelphia. But that view does get to the root of the Kenney-Clarke argument, which is politics. They are vying over how much control the mayor and Council will have over each school board member.
The mayor and the Council president have been working so well together that this tiff comes somewhat unexpected. But no matter the outcome, the big loser will be Philadelphia’s children if school board members have to constantly look over their shoulders to see what someone in City Hall wants.
Anyone willing to work under those circumstances shouldn’t be on the board. That’s why the nominating committee’s choices must be closely scrutinized. Kenney shouldn’t appoint anyone who would be afraid to oppose him, or Clark, to protect the best interests of schoolchildren.
In retrospect, perhaps it would have been good to limit members of the new board to one six-year term; they now can serve up to three four-year terms. That might alleviate implied or real political pressure on board members.
This complicated issue is a preview of what the new school board will have to grapple with constantly, and sometimes resolve imperfectly — all the while continuing to work together. That’s a good lesson for Kenney and Clarke to heed.
This is an important moment for Philadelphia. After years of derision by legislators from other counties who scoffed at the city’s ability to manage its schools, the city is getting a chance to prove them wrong. The next step is for Kenney and Clarke to settle their differences and finish the process for a charter change.