In a surprise move, Wendell Pritchett resigned Thursday from the School Reform Commission, citing frustration with and fear for the state of public education in Philadelphia.
He will be replaced by Marjorie Neff, who until June was principal of Masterman, the city's top magnet school. Neff spent 38 years as a teacher and principal and was the first Philadelphia School District educator to ever serve on the SRC.
Pritchett, a well-regarded academic who was the longest-serving member of the commission, said the SRC's job had essentially become figuring out which from a menu of bad options will cause the least damage to city students.
"This is not a way to run a high-performing school system," Pritchett wrote in his resignation letter to Mayor Nutter. "And these challenges will not change until our citizens recognize the fundamental need for a quality education for EVERY child and demand that our governments at the local, state, and federal level all participate in the creation of a fully funded educational program."
Nutter hailed Pritchett, saying in a statement that "his leadership on the SRC has been unwavering and crucial." Pritchett served as deputy chief of staff early in Nutter's first term.
Pritchett, whose children attend city public schools, joined the SRC in September 2011. For a time, he served as acting chair of the five-member body.
His tenure was marked by tremendous upheaval in the district, but he earned a reputation as smart, thoughtful, and hardworking. He chaired the search committee that brought Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. to Philadelphia.
Hite noted that Pritchett, interim law school dean at the University of Pennsylvania and former chancellor of Rutgers-Camden, is the son of two district teachers, and said Pritchett honored his parents with his SRC service.
"Wendell has been steadfast and clearheaded in navigating the great number of challenges facing the School District, in particular the financial crisis that threatens to dismantle our public education system," Hite said in a statement. "I share his concerns about the future of public education in Philadelphia."
SRC Chairman Bill Green said he had leaned on Pritchett since joining the commission in February. "During my brief tenure, I came to rely on Wendell's judgment, clarity of thought, and pure decency," Green said. "He is a wonderful man and was a great commissioner. His departure is a huge loss to the children of Philadelphia and to me personally."
Most of the SRC's attention during Pritchett's time was spent managing crises. The district is still embroiled in a cheating scandal. It has closed dozens of schools over the last several years and is still coping with massive fiscal problems. Many city schools still lack adequate basic supplies and full-time counselors and nurses.
The district narrowly averted 1,300 layoffs and swelling class sizes to 40 and beyond when state lawmakers signed off this week on a $2-per-pack cigarette tax for Philadelphia that will yield $45 million for city schools this year. But the system still has a gap of millions, and no plan to plug it.
Neff knows the job ahead of her is daunting - commissioners work long hours and receive no pay. Retiring in June and joining the SRC in short order was "a hard decision, but I feel like I had to continue to contribute in whatever way I can, particularly in this time when the financial picture is so dismal," Neff said.
The SRC is diverse - its members range from a former City Council member to a former district bus aide - but Neff said her background was important.
"I'm hoping that the experience I bring from the classroom and as a principal in the district will add kids' voice in a way that hasn't been heard before," she said.
Her term will expire in 2017.
Nutter knows Neff well. His daughter recently graduated from Masterman, and he said he had the "utmost faith in her abilities to advocate tirelessly on behalf of our students."
Neff began her career as a classroom teacher, then moved up to become principal of Powell Elementary in West Philadelphia. For the last eight years, she was principal of Masterman, frequently recognized as the top school in the state.
She has always been struck by city students' resilience, Neff said - their courage in the face of tough learning conditions.
"I want to continue to support those kids," Neff said. "Whatever difficulties I encounter doing this job will pale in comparison to what kids and district staff encounter every day."