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In historic vote, a divided SRC moves to abolish itself

The School Reform Commission, the state-devised panel that has ruled the Philadelphia School District for 16 years, declared the era of distress for the city's schools over.

Diane Payne, center, a retired teacher from Mayfair Elementary and others rally outside the School District of Philadelphia building, celebrating the impending end of the SRC.
Diane Payne, center, a retired teacher from Mayfair Elementary and others rally outside the School District of Philadelphia building, celebrating the impending end of the SRC.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

The Philadelphia School Reform Commission is on its way to extinction.

The state-devised panel, the ruler of the School District for 16 years, voted to dissolve itself Thursday night, declaring that the era of distress for the city's schools was over.

Immediately after the 3-1 vote, shouts, cheers, and chants of "the people united will never be defeated" arose from a raucous crowd that had gathered to witness the moment.

SRC Chair Joyce Wilkerson said the panel had made tough decisions that put the school system on sounder financial and academic footing.

"Returning the district to Philadelphia will allow us to build on this progress and stability," Wilkerson said. "The district is ready for its next phase, and Philadelphia is ready to take ownership of its schools."

The SRC will not be officially dissolved until the state education secretary signs off, and even then won't cease to exist until June 30, 2018, when a nine-member local board appointed by Mayor Kenney will replace it. Leaders emphasized that there would be little day-to-day change in school or district operations, and said they prize stability and the leadership of Superintendent William R. Hite Jr.

The dramatic vote capped a day of sign-waving jubilation among those who had long pushed for local control of city schools — the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and education activists — but came with warnings, particularly from the two SRC members who did not join the chorus for dissolution.

Commissioner Bill Green said the district ought to have extracted a promise from the city to increase local funding by $150 million — which would amount to an 11 percent property tax hike — to cover the district's projected $700 million deficit over five years.

Kenney and Darrell L. Clarke, City Council president, have vowed to cover the district's expenses, but have not committed to a specific number or method of funding. Green, a former city councilman, said a firmer promise was needed, and also doubted a new board's ability to act without considering politics.

"A large number of interests will be lined up to divide the new spoils available to insiders," Green said.

Commissioner Farah Jimenez abstained from voting. To end itself, the SRC has to prove that the district is past the fiscally distressed designation that led to its creation in  the first place, and Jimenez said she wasn't convinced.

Given its looming deficit, "there can also be no question that the School District of Philadelphia is in distress," Jimenez said.

Still, the ayes ruled the day.

Kenney and Clarke, in testimony submitted to the SRC, said that the city's funding and closer collaboration with the school system in recent years had helped it make progress, and that more was needed.

"This administration and City Council have already taken on greater responsibility for an organization with which we have no direct oversight or authority relationship," the mayor and Council president said in their statement. "The people we represent, the residents and voters of Philadelphia, deserve direct accountability from the district that serves their children."

Councilwoman Helen Gym, who sat in the audience at the old School District building near Logan Square 16 years ago when the state takeover was thrust upon the city, was in the audience at the district's North Broad Street headquarters to greet the SRC's end. She credited grassroots activism as an "unstoppable political force" for spurring the change, and decried once more the commission's stewardship of the district.

"The takeover was a massive educational experiment on black and brown and immigrant children — from reckless charter expansion to mass school closings," Gym said. "These were strategies not backed by any educational research, they didn't solve the existing and terrible problems within the district, and they hurt far too many children. Today, we recognize that we need to chart a new path."

Jubilation was the dominant emotion in the audience, but there was also anger.

Parent Kendra Brooks did not mince words.

"Dysfunction starts from the head," said Brooks, who fought a district attempt to hand her children's school over to a charter company, "and today, we celebrate the decapitation."

In advance of the meeting, about 200 people gathered outside School District headquarters, chanting "SRC you later" and "SRC, goodbye," and waving signs.

"What did the SRC bring us? The SRC brought us the privatization of our schools," said Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, faulting the commission for "massive layoffs," budget deficits, and cancellation of the teachers' contract.

Randi Weingarten, president of the national teachers' union the American Federation of Teachers, also was in attendance, declaring the end of the SRC "a huge victory for the people of Philadelphia."

But they steeled themselves for more work ahead — including putting a "people's school board" in place, and addressing racial and funding inequity between schools.

"In the suburbs, they're spending $10,000 more" per student, State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.) told the crowd. "That is the fight we've got to win. Damn it, show me the money. It is about the money. Don't get distracted."

With the vote behind the SRC, staff on Friday will ship "a van full of documents" to Harrisburg for Education Secretary Pedro A. Rivera's review. He must sign off on the dissolution by the end of the year. Kenney will also soon name a nominating panel for school board members, who will have to come up to speed quickly on the operations of the district, which educates about 130,000 students in traditional public schools and about 65,000 more in charters.

J.J. Abbott, Gov. Wolf's spokesman, indicated that for those cheering the end of the SRC, the news would be good.

“Gov. Wolf has long supported Philadelphia residents – and not Harrisburg politicians – having local control of schools,” Abbott said in a statement. “The Department of Education will begin its review of the School Reform Commission’s dissolution request.”