Philadelphia Metropolis


The Other Shoe Drops

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Archie.jpgThe other shoe dropped at Philadelphia School District headquarters this week.

With Arlene Ackerman gone, the folks responsible for hiring her fired themselves.

Robert L. Archie Jr., chair of the School Reform Commission, announced he was stepping down.  His departure was quickly followed by the resignation of Johnny Irizarry, another SRC member.

The board has five members, with two appointed by the mayor and three by the governor. Archie and Irizarry were Michael Nutter appointees and my reasonable assumption is that the mayor told them their services were no longer required.

The gubernatorial appointees who remain are Denise Armbrister and Joe Dworestky, both named by Gov. Ed Rendell.

The other gubernatorial position is unfilled, though Gov. Tom Corbett has nominated Pedro Ramos - who is, ironically, a Democrat and former chair of the old school board -- but he still must be confirmed by the state Senate.

To recapitulate, we have no superintendent and only two of the five SRC members standing after the Ackerman debacle.

Looks like the winds of change are sweeping the SRC. Woooooooo.

It makes sense for the SRC members to depart.  Phil Goldsmith, who once headed the district on an interim basis, made a good case for why the other day. I won't repeat those arguments, but you can read them here.

Armbrister's term ends in January and will step down, Dworetsky has said he plans to stay until his term expires in 2014. 

The question is: what's next?



There is sentiment for abolishing the SRC and returning control of the district to the city.

The district was taken over by the state in 2001 and has been run by this joint state-city school board since then.

A group of Democratic legislators is drafting legislation to abolish the SRC and replace it with a nine-member elected board, but give the power to hire and fire the superintendent to the mayor.

Politically, that proposal is a non-starter in Harrisburg.  The governor and the Republicans who control the House and Senate like the current arrangement and are not inclined to change it.

But, let's take the idea at face value.  Is it a good idea to shuck the SRC and replace it with a locally elected board?

Good Lord, no.

For starters, how much power will this board have, given that it would cede to the mayor the right to hire and fire the superintendent?  In effect, the district would become a department of city government.

And these nine school board members - elected from districts carved out around the city - what would they do?  I see meddling. I see grandstanding.  Though the legislation calls for the board members to be elected in a bipartisan way, I see these jobs going to folks handpicked by Democratic Party chair Bob Brady.

It's best to think of the district, in this case, not as a $2.7 billion government entity, but as a pie.  With a lot of contracts to hand out, a lot of jobs to fill, and a lot of untapped patronage potential.

Is this education reform? To go back to the days in the early 1900's, when you had to go through a ward leader to get a job in the schools? I think not.

When John Street used a series of brilliant jujitsu moves to get the state to take over the district in 2001, he solved a myriad of problems that had existed for decades:

First, it ended the ceaseless, divisive, racial battle over who was primarily responsible for funding education in Philadelphia. With the take over, it was the state. And the state - under Tom Ridge and Rendell - has stepped forward and picked up a bigger share of the bill. Under Corbett, they have retreated.  But the net gain in state aid - from 2001 until today - is substantial.

Second, Street tied the fate of the district to the state and its political leaders.  They would share in the glory if the schools improved.  They would be to blame if it did not.

Third, he did make sure there was power sharing.  The governor gets three appointees to the SRC, the mayor gets two, but it's hard to tell - in attending the meetings and watching them act - which is which.

In fact, it was a mayoral appointee - Archie - who was chair of the SRC until this week.  And he is likely to be succeeded by Ramos, a Democrat, who was first named to the school board by John Street and now is a Corbett nominee. So, the circle comes full round.

So, we've got a lot more money from the deal. And we have the state with a stake in the success of the district. And since the state takeover, despite all the drama, student performance has improved. The district is much better today than 10 years ago.

So what's the problem?

Almost from the beginning, the SRC has failed to assert its proper role as policymaker for the district. It should set the goals. It should control the budget. It should lay down the broad parameters of performance.  It should act, in other words, in the same way an active board of directors acts in a private corporation.

Instead (and private boards do this as well) it has adopted the "Savior" approach.  Hire a strong chief executive, let him or her have free reign, then stand back and let them do all the heavy lifting.

And if that CEO stumbles along the way? Well, how can you complain? This is the person you hired.  You have to support them, even though you look like a clueless chump doing it.

Given the endgames with Paul Vallas (a large, undisclosed deficit) and Arlene Ackerman (a general meltdown) that approach has proven to be a mistake.

What the SRC needs to do is not look for another Savior, but examine the district, set the high goals, and hire someone willing and able to meet them. In other words, seize your right to set policy.

Then, I would encourage them to take $2 million and hire independent staff to monitor the district's budget and the district's administration.  The new superintendent and budget officer will hate those people, but tough noogies. They need someone - every minute of every day - to look over their shoulders.

Finally, I would have the SRC - or, certainly its chair - serve as the voice of district's policy, philosophy and goals.  In this way, the superintendent becomes the (hopefully, creative and dynamic) implementer who serves the SRC, as opposed to the Ackerman model.  
Where she dominated all the proceedings and the SRC was a still life.

We don't need still lives running the district in Philly.  The needs are too great, the stake are too high. We need more from the SRC. We need it now.

-- Tom Ferrick


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