Lisa Salley, Reginald Streater, and Cecelia Thompson have a daunting path in front of them.
The three — sworn in as new school board members by Mayor Jim Kenney Friday — now find themselves in control of a complex school system with a $3.5 billion budget and 120,000 students, with 80,000 more in charter schools.
Philadelphia School District buildings have not been open to students since March, and the district and its teachers’ union are locked in battle over a reopening plan and whether classrooms are safe for students and staff.
“You are taking on this honor at a very pivotal moment in our nation’s history,” Kenney told the trio, whose unpaid terms run for the remainder of his mayoral term. Kenney charged them to “embrace the next challenge facing our city by helping our students return to school safely and as quickly as possible.”
All three are district graduates. Streater is the parent of children at C.W. Henry Elementary in Mount Airy, and Thompson’s son recently graduated from Martin Luther King High School; Salley is the aunt of a child in the system. Salley is an engineer and businessperson; Streater, a lawyer and Philadelphia ACLU board member; and Thompson, an education activist, particularly around special education issues.
All three vowed to hit the ground running.
Thompson said her mission was clear.
“My whole purpose, from this point forward, is that all families have a voice, so they can be the best advocates — whether their child has an exceptionality or not,” said Thompson.
Salley said the pandemic has “really put the pot on boil with all the discussion on education,” and that she hopes, with school reopening conversations, to move them “from no, it can’t be done, to how could it be done?”
Thompson, whose son has autism, said the boy struggled with remote learning before graduating in June, and though building safety is crucial, so is giving families whose children have special needs an option to return them to classrooms.
“Some children just need to be back in school,” said Thompson.
Streater, who will be the only man on the nine-member board, pledged to examine issues of equity closely.
“I want to identify institutional barriers to equity as it relates to race, class, and neighborhood. I think these are things that are prevalent in the city, as it related to the School District of Philadelphia,” Streater said.
Streater also identified a district “crisis” around clear communication.
“I’ve been in a few meetings as a parent where I would have to be a teacher or an expert just to understand what’s being talked about,” he said. The board and the district must speak clearly and honestly to the community to quell concerns, said Streater, who described himself as “very village-oriented. I think that it is illogical to solve a problem about the village that doesn’t involve the village.”
Salley, Streater, and Thompson replace Christopher McGinley, Ameen Akbar, and Lee Huang. McGinley and Akbar’s seats have been vacant; Huang served until the trio’s appointment.