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How much control does Philly’s mayor have over its schools? Here are the candidates’ education platforms.

The Philly mayor’s power over public schools is limited but influential. Here’s what the five leading contenders have proposed.

The top five mayoral candidates are Helen Gym, Cherelle Parker, Rebecca Rhynhart, Allan Domb, and Jeff Brown.
The top five mayoral candidates are Helen Gym, Cherelle Parker, Rebecca Rhynhart, Allan Domb, and Jeff Brown.Read moreStaff file photos

All of the candidates in the running to be Philadelphia’s next mayor say education would be a cornerstone of their administration’s policies.

Not all campaign promises can be fulfilled, though, as there are limits to what power a mayor yields when it comes to Philadelphia’s public schools. In advance of Tuesday’s Democratic primary,here’s a look at what the mayor can and can’t do.

Does the mayor actually control schools?

No. Superintendent Tony B. Watlington Sr. is in charge of day-to-day operations of the 113,000-student Philadelphia School District, and he reports to the nine-member school board, which controls the district’s $4.5 billion budget and approves policy.

The mayor does select every school board member for terms that run in conjunction with their own term, giving them significant control over the board’s politics and philosophy. That’s a relatively new power; the district for 17 years was under state takeover, with a majority of School Reform Commission members chosen by Pennsylvania’s governor.

Mayor Jim Kenney engineered a return to local control in 2018, appointing the first school board since 2001.

Philadelphia’s unusual school-funding structure, the only one of its kind in Pennsylvania, means that the school board actually has no authority to levy any taxes for its own revenue. Instead, it depends on the state and city for the majority of its money.

As such, Philadelphia’s mayor plays a role in proposing about half of the district’s budget, but Council ultimately approves the plan for the district. This in theory should mean it’s in the board’s best interest to be on good terms with the city, though that’s not always the case, historically. This year, the board sued the city over a law that gives the city oversight over environmental conditions in the schools, meaning the city, not the board, would say whether schools are fit to open.

What have the candidates proposed?

From expanding career and technical education to instituting year-round school, the five leading candidates — grocery owner Jeff Brown, former City Councilmembers Allan Domb, Helen Gym, and Cherelle Parker, and former City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart — have all laid out various visions for what the city’s education environment would look like in their administration.

Jeff Brown: His topline education priority is expanding career and technical education, but his platform does not specify whether he would dedicate city money to such an expansion. He pledged city funds for more police and expanding school safety zones, and for more mental health supports in schools. He said his administration would create a team to evaluate all district buildings, many of which are beset by asbestos and other environmental issues.

Brown also said he wants to focus on teacher recruitment and retention, working with the district to start a mentorship program for newer teachers, build more “innovation schools,” and place career specialists in every high school. He said he’d use his business background, working with Watlington to evaluate district processes and reduce waste.

Allan Domb: Domb has said the city needs increased accountability from both district and charter schools. While he said he supports increased school funding, he believes money alone cannot bring the “generational change” needed in city schools, and the increases in funding given to the district in recent years haven’t brought proportional achievement boosts.

At the top of Domb’s list of education priorities is rightsizing the district, he said in response to an Inquirer questionnaire. “We need an overall plan, and as part of that plan, we need to identify schools that can be used while others are being rehabbed. Then shutter or sell off unused properties.”

Domb has long pushed financial literacy as a priority, and said students also need technology training and opportunities to work for credit.

Helen Gym: She has education bona fides: She worked as a district teacher, was editor of the education-focused Public School Notebook, cofounded Parents United for Public Education, and spent years as an education activist fighting budget cuts and school closures. (In 2021, during her stint as a City Council member, Gym was arrested in Harrisburg during a protest over school funding.)

Gym, who has the endorsement of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, proposes a 10-year, $10 billion plan to modernize every school in the district, using existing funding, new state money, and city capital funds. The district needs a new facilities master plan; Gym said she would bring the city and others into conversations that will lead not to school closures but community-directed co-locations that will allow government services, nonprofits, and medical providers to work in unused space in school buildings. She also wants to shift the school’s share of the city property taxes to 60%, from 55%.

She also wants playgrounds for every school, free transportation for every school student, and more crossing guards. Gym proposes a leadership position focused solely on school safety — presumably separate from the district’s chief safety officer — and expanded, city-paid mental health services in schools. She said she will prioritize restoring school libraries and librarians, and leaning on the district to end leveling, the controversial process of shifting educators to match actual enrollment, which results in some schools losing teachers several weeks into the fall term. She also promised to fund extracurricular activities.

Cherelle Parker: Parker, who earned a teaching degree and worked briefly as an English teacher in Pleasantville, N.J., has said her education plan includes year-round school, and keeping all school buildings open longer hours in order to provide robust extracurricular opportunities.

Parker wants high schools to offer sports, college courses, apprenticeships in connection with the city’s Building and Construction Trades Council, and career training with city departments and private businesses.

Rebecca Rhynhart: Rhynhart said she would choose diverse school board members but replace them if the district fails to make progress on district goals. She vowed a stronger Mayor’s Office of Education — the office historically leads city education initiatives like the community schools effort — and said the district needs funding to accomplish its goals, but stressed she’d require transparency on spending and implement a framework for measuring success that holds adults accountable.

Rhynhart has pledged city-provided nurses and social workers if schools don’t have them, and wants to restore school libraries. Rhynhart said she would make sure all K-8 students have access to Algebra I and world languages and direct the city’s cultural office to offer art, dance, music, and creative writing classes. She said she’d also use city resources to add career and technical opportunities, address student absenteeism, help with building issues, and provide mental health supports.

The city, Rhynhart said, will also prioritize increasing teacher pay and revamping the substitute teacher system.