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Local control is here: New Philly school board holds first-ever meeting

The Philadelphia Board of Education has a great deal on its plate: It controls a $3.2 billion budget and the fate of over 200,000 students in traditional public and charter schools.

New Philadelphia School Board, their first meeting, Monday, July 9, 2018. STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer
New Philadelphia School Board, their first meeting, Monday, July 9, 2018. STEVEN M. FALK / Staff PhotographerRead moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

Local governance of the School District of Philadelphia is here.

To applause and cheers, the city's new, nine-member Board of Education held its first public meeting on a "historic" Monday night, as Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. termed it — seven months after Mayor Kenney announced the city was taking back control of its schools.

A crowd that roundly booed the School Reform Commission, the board's predecessor, seemed to welcome the new governing body with open arms and enormous expectations. The board seemed to distance itself from the SRC, moving itself closer physically to the audience, vowing to hold meetings around the city, and informally meeting with members of the public after the formal session.

"You are the hope for this community," Rich Migliore, a retired Philadelphia educator, said in public testimony. His voice choked with tears.

Its first order of business was electing leaders. Joyce Wilkerson, a former SRC chair with long government experience, was unanimously elected president. Wayne Walker, an expert in nonprofit management and corporate turnarounds, was elected vice president by a 5-4 vote.

Julia Danzy, a social-services expert, was also considered. In a departure from the SRC, which hashed out most of its business privately, the board publicly debated between Danzy, who said she would only serve in a leadership role "briefly," and Walker.

Wilkerson said she knew it was a tough sell — for a board keenly aware of the city's mandate for change — to elect someone with ties to the state-dominated SRC, and addressed the issued head-on.

"I am no less committed to change," Wilkerson said.

Dignitaries and members of the public trooped to a microphone to welcome the board, and to warn it of the work ahead.

"We finally get to envision and articulate a new vision for the School District of Philadelphia," Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez said, thanking the advocates who "stayed in our faces so we did the right thing" to force the end of the SRC.

Kenney offered a benediction to the men and women he chose from hundreds of nominees to run the district, which controls a $3.2 billion budget and the fate of 205,000 students in traditional public schools and charter schools.

"God bless you, godspeed, and good luck," the mayor said.

Robin Roberts, a district parent and member of Parents United for Public Education, urged the board to maintain its independence.

"We do not need another rubber stamp, as the SRC was, to weaken public education in Philadelphia. We, the parents of district students, expect better of you all," Roberts said.

The board members themselves seemed awed and invigorated by the challenge ahead of them.

"We must unapologetically embrace democracy at a time when democracy is under attack," member Angela McIver said to applause from the crowd. "We must embrace protest and dissent, and recognize that it is the highest form of patriotism. … Public education is democracy in action."

McIver also noted that Kenney empowered the board with a great deal of autonomy.

"The board is beholden to the children of Philadelphia," McIver said.

Christopher McGinley, another former SRC member, grew emotional when he discussed the job ahead of the board.

"Tonight, we stand on the cusp of making a better world for the children and young families who live and work in our city," McGinley said.

Danzy, who oversaw the city's health and welfare departments during the administration of Mayor John F. Street, said she means to fight for students who are too often marginalized and seen as problems, not people of possibility.

Mallory Fix Lopez, a former district teacher and current Community College of Philadelphia professor, who said she plans to send her young son to a public school, said she realized that many city parents in her position — thirtysomethings with the resources to move out of the city or send their children to private school — do not consider their neighborhood schools as options.

"I feel the pressure," Fix Lopez said. "I feel the huge mountain we as a board — and as a city — face in terms of reclaiming the narrative of public education. But it's not simply a story — as the facts need to support it. We need high-performing, resource-rich, safe facilities that are equitable throughout the city."

Leticia Egea-Hinton, a longtime activist for the homeless, said she's already gotten a taste of what's ahead of her on the board.

"Lord knows," Egea-Hinton said, "it's going to be an adventure."