What Marjorie Neff envisioned for her life after retiring in June was travel and undivided time with family, sprinkled with regular stints volunteering at her neighborhood school.

What the former Philadelphia principal got was quite different - one of the toughest positions in the city, unpaid at that, with political stakes so high the future of 200,000 children depends in part on how well she does her job.

When she told one of her sons over the winter she was about to become chair of the School Reform Commission, he was a little wistful: Why couldn't Neff be more like his girlfriend's mother?

"She went on a trip to Thailand and took up poetry," Neff said, laughing. "But I grew up in this system, and my children went through it. I'm not leaving this city. God willing, I'm going to have grandchildren and they'll go to public school."

So Neff, 62, finds herself on a steep learning curve, with days and often nights consumed by work that is informed by her 38 years as a city teacher and principal but that sometimes pits her against city teachers and principals.

No one imagined a few months ago that Neff would be holding the SRC gavel. Former City Councilman Bill Green had fought for that job and was just a year into it.

But Green was Gov. Tom Corbett's pick, and Gov. Wolf wanted his own person. Neff, who had been chosen last summer as an SRC commissioner by Mayor Nutter, suddenly found herself taking on the role she never wanted from the person who made very clear he very much did.

Green threatened a lawsuit against Wolf but has nothing but praise for Neff, and the two say that although they see the world in very different ways, they work well together.

It was undeniably awkward, but Neff makes it clear she won't allow that tension to define her tenure. "It's not a factor at this point. He's been very helpful," she said of Green.

Neff is a different kind of SRC chair simply because she is the first person who has taught in, run, and sent her children to city schools. But she is also different because of whom she replaces - a strong-willed politician.

(At an SRC meeting this month, for instance, Green told one speaker: "You're not really saying anything, although you're talking.")

Neff is good at nuance. People who worked for her say they always thought she wanted to hear their opinion, even if it was clear she was in charge.

"Being in charge to me does not mean directing everything," Neff said. "Collaborative does not mean weak: I'm not indecisive."

Lori Shorr, the city's chief education officer, helped recruit Neff to the SRC last year and said she couldn't be more pleased with her work as commissioner and chair.

"She's trying to steer a huge ship, and being a maverick player doesn't get that turned," Shorr said. "She listens more than she talks, and I'm not sure that's been the case with all of our SRC chairs."

Navigating the messy period after Wolf pulled Green's chairmanship in early March was tough, Shorr said, but Neff salvaged what could have been a disaster.

"It could have split the body, in which case you have wholesale dysfunction," said Shorr. "I'm impressed with how these five people continue to work together."

Taking charge

Neff was in full-on listening mode last month on one of her weekly school visits. She and SRC member Feather Houstoun stopped at Furness High, on Third Street in South Philadelphia.

Principal Daniel Peou led the commissioners on a tour of a school that illustrates some of the district's strengths and challenges: Furness is diverse and welcoming, with many success stories. But it still struggles academically, and its building is 101 years old.

"The roof is leaking and falling apart," Peou told Neff and Houstoun, pointing to a section of crumbling plaster in the auditorium. "They had to close down the fourth floor."

Neff sounded very much the educator as she asked questions about the science lab, the Advanced Placement art class, and teacher-planning time. Her face lit up in a classroom where a teacher had 15 recent immigrants actively engaged in a conversation about personification.

"That's a great example, 'The sun eats the night,' " Neff said, turning to Peou. Later, she encouraged him to dream a little.

"When we're able to get sufficient resources, what things are you going to be adding or changing or doing?" she asked.

Peou paused.

"Honestly, there is no way anyone can run a neighborhood high school without an assistant principal," he said.

Classroom visits feed Neff. She misses the frequent interactions with students and staff she had at Masterman, an elite city magnet, and before that at Powel Elementary, a neighborhood school in West Philadelphia.

"It's the best part of my week," she said of her school stops.

"Schools are terribly, terribly under-resourced, and we need to do better," she said. "It hits me every time I go into our public schools - Furness has one science lab in a school of 600 kids."

To address that, she finds herself learning on the job about how to become a politician.

In her final year at Masterman, Neff took on an activist role as one of a group of principals speaking out about the dismal conditions inside their schools, and the need for more money. But that was different.

"I had nothing to lose last year," Neff said. "The relationships in Harrisburg and City Council are so much more important. That's not an area where I had a lot of experience, and I'm learning about that."

Beyond convincing politicians that Philadelphia schools are worth investing huge sums of money in (see Nutter's proposed tax increase and Wolf's desired boost in state aid), she has other priorities. The SRC is reviled by many, and she wants to repair trust.

Neff wants the SRC to have more informal meetings, more meetings in neighborhoods. She has pushed to have meeting agendas available for inspection weeks in advance so the public has more opportunity to weigh in.

But those are small steps. She has bigger questions on her mind, too, about principals - "We can try to have rock stars who come in and do amazing things, but typically rock stars don't tend to stay" - and teachers - "How can we attract and retain teachers when we can't guarantee good working conditions or competitive salaries?"

It's complicated

Her position with city teachers is complicated. Her reputation as principal was sterling - the rep on Neff was she was someone you wanted to work for, and she earned plaudits in some circles when she did not vote to authorize a single new charter school this year.

But some saw her vote last year to cancel the teachers' contract as a betrayal. Neff maintains that the move - whose legality is now being decided by the state Supreme Court - was good at the time.

"We have a fiscal responsibility to the kids to maintain a system that works," Neff said. "Sometimes, things are going to be in conflict, and that's uncomfortable."

To Lisa Haver, a retired teacher and a founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, Neff is confusing:

As a principal, "her teachers loved her, and I was very happy," Haver said, "that we had a real educator on the SRC, and someone of her stature."

But that changed quickly.

"Right out of the box, she blew it," Haver said. "I don't know why she would squander all the goodwill she built up over the years."

Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. is very comfortable with Neff, whom he called upon as principal of Masterman to be part of an informal group of on-the-ground advisers.

Philadelphia politics is its own animal, Hite said, and any person new to the SRC chair must come up to speed.

"Marge has the intellect and temperament to work through those things," Hite said. "I would not underestimate Marge's advocacy."

215-854-5146@newskag