Sylvia Simms rarely speaks publicly at School Reform Commission meetings.
But nearly five hours into a contentious session on Thursday night, the former Philadelphia School District bus aide dropped a bombshell, offering a walk-on resolution that altered the fate of a struggling Germantown public school.
"I have pent-up emotions about the way the district has allowed many of our schools in low-income neighborhoods to fail our students and their families," Simms said. "Families are literally crying for alternatives, and they have shown us by their choices that they are not pleased by the way we are educating their children."
The last-minute resolution overruled the wishes of Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., beginning a process likely to culminate in Wister Elementary being taken over by Mastery Charter Schools.
Hite had first called for Wister, Huey, and Cooke Elementary Schools to be taken over by charter companies, but the superintendent reversed course this month after Wister demonstrated some growth in school-performance data.
All night Thursday at the SRC meeting, emotions ran high, with a large group of parents in blue "I support the Wister turnaround" clothing advocating ardently for Mastery, and others waving signs urging the SRC to turn no schools over to charters. Parents on each side accused the other of being manipulated by powerful outsiders.
Simms' move was so unexpected - and rare - that it wasn't immediately clear to those in the audience what had happened.
Simms and Commissioners Bill Green and Feather Houstoun endorsed the resolution to essentially invite Mastery to file a formal charter application for Wister. Farah Jimenez, citing a potential conflict, abstained, and Chair Marjorie Neff voted no, citing a "zero-sum game" where any new charter takes resources away from children in traditional public schools.
The vote had ripples Friday.
William Jackson, a Wister parent very much in favor of Mastery, was jubilant and, he said, "pleasantly surprised" by the SRC's about-face.
The traditional public school system failed Jackson's children, he said, and Mastery, where two of his children attend middle school, has set things right. He and more than 500 parents signed petitions asking that Mastery be given Wister.
"I really believe the district needs an overhaul," said Jackson. "It's outdated. It's antiquated."
He waved off suggestions that Mastery, the region's largest charter organization, had put words in his mouth.
"They do have money - I hope a lot of money," said Jackson. "It seems to me they are trying to assist disenfranchised low-income kids, and they're going to need the money."
But Novilette Jones, who had fought with members of Parents United for Public Education - the citywide group cofounded by Councilwoman Helen Gym - was disappointed.
"Honestly, I think we were set up," said Jones, a Wister parent. "They tell us one thing, then five minutes later, they changed their mind?"
Mayor Kenney on Friday said he was "shocked" by the SRC's move, and that he supported Hite's recommendation to keep Wister as a district school.
"John Wister Elementary has demonstrated signs of improvement and it's important that we better support administrators and teachers who are committed to improving neighborhood schools," Kenney said in a statement, urging the SRC to listen to Hite and Wister's "entire" community about which operator is best for the school.
Council President Darrell L. Clarke was livid.
"Decisions regarding our neighborhood public schools should be made in broad daylight with those directly impacted at the table, not by fiat with no advance notice after 10 o'clock at night. No public authority in America, including the City Council of Philadelphia, is permitted to conduct itself with so little transparency and so much insulation from citizens," said Clarke, who renewed his cry for the SRC to be disbanded.
But Simms, in an interview Friday, said her walk-on resolution was motivated by nothing other than her own feelings after a sit-down with some Wister parents.
"When I met with them, I felt them," said Simms. "I am them. I may be a commissioner, but I am the parents that I serve. I live in a low-income, impoverished neighborhood. At some point, somebody's got to stand up for these parents, and that's what I did."
Simms said she didn't think about how her fellow commissioners would react.
"I did not know what anybody else was going to do," she said. "If nobody would have rolled with me, I still would have been fine. I said what I wanted to say."
Green said Simms' passion moved him to the point where he overruled Hite, whom he has declared the best superintendent in the country.
"Sylvia made a compelling case," he said.
What happens next remains to be seen. The SRC will vote, likely in March, on the charter applications presented by Mastery for Wister, Great Oaks for Cooke and Global Leadership Academy for Huey. Hite and the charter office will weigh in on those.
In the meantime, camps on both side of the Wister divide say they know the fight is not over.
And Gym, the new councilwoman and longtime schools activist, said she plans to formally raise concerns over potential SRC conflicts of interest.
She blasted the "outrageous" resolution that "with no advance public notice impacted a school community without its knowledge."
Simms' sister, Quibila Divine, works for a consulting company that lists Mastery as a client. Michael A. Davis, the district's general counsel, said that he had reviewed the matter and found no conflict of interest.