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For Philly’s new school board: Lessons from the SRC’s 17 years

The big promises pitched when the SRC was concocted never panned out: As the 17-year school governance experiment sunsets, Philadelphia is not the nation's premier big-city district, by any measure. What does that mean for the incoming school board?

SRC members and superintendent  William Hite wave as they thank a staffer at the final School Reform Commission meeting. From left to right: Bill Green, Fran Burns, Marge Neff, Estelle Richman and Hite.
SRC members and superintendent William Hite wave as they thank a staffer at the final School Reform Commission meeting. From left to right: Bill Green, Fran Burns, Marge Neff, Estelle Richman and Hite.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

The state takeover of the School District of Philadelphia was sealed with a handshake on Dec. 21, 2001.

"I'm delighted to say that we have a full partnership, and to that end, I believe we will give rise to the finest urban school system in the country," then-Gov. Mark Schweiker, alongside Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street, said at a Convention Center lectern. The School Reform Commission was formed the next day, triggered by a formal declaration of fiscal distress in the school system.

That prediction by Schweiker and Street never panned out: As the 17-year school governance experiment known as the SRC sunsets on Saturday, Philadelphia is not the nation's premier big-city district by any measure.

Instead, the new local Board of Education — appointed by Mayor Kenney — inherits a school system that's endured years of financial pressure, labor strife, and crumbling infrastructure, but has also celebrated some academic victories and regained a measure of trust in Harrisburg.

As the board takes over this month, the Inquirer and Daily News asked former SRC members to reflect on its impact on the city, its schools, and families. They agreed it leaves behind a complicated legacy, thrusting education to the forefront of people's consciousness both in Philadelphia and Harrisburg, and mostly keeping it there, for better or worse. That was a double-edged sword.

"It definitely hyper-politicized public education," said Sandra Dungee Glenn, an original SRC member who served seven years. "The philosophy of privatizing schools was injected — the clear divvying up of contracts around public education took on a higher significance. You were experimenting with our children under these different models, and that definitely hurt the district."

To be sure, part of the dashed promise owes to the financial and management decisions made by the governing body and district leadership along the way.

But much of the lack of progress has to do with the school system's unique setup: Then and now, it cannot generate a dime of the revenue it needs to educate 200,000 students. Instead, it must rely on government entities — City Hall and the state.

For a brief time after the SRC was created, both saw eye-to-eye on what each of them could and should do to fund the district. But the honeymoon was short-lived.

‘Trouble in a big way’

That first five-person, unpaid commission included a Swarthmore banker, a municipal finance expert, a college president, a telecommunications executive, and Dungee Glenn, a nonprofit executive. In the years that followed, 19 others would rotate in and out of those seats.

Early on, there was constant coordination between Harrisburg and Philadelphia. The SRC was flush with state cash. Charters, some operated by people with political connections, proliferated. Schools were given over to private managers to run, with mostly lackluster results. Administrative costs soared. The district saw the biggest building boom in its history, a $1.5 billion capital campaign. Revenues rose, and then rose again.

Everything came crashing down with the recession and the 2010 election of Gov. Tom Corbett, who cut education spending sharply. By 2011, the district was facing a $629 million budget crisis and was forced to lay off more than 3,000 workers — half of them teachers — a budget cycle that would repeat for several painful years.

When Feather Houstoun joined the SRC in 2011, she had experience running large bureaucracies: She had been New Jersey's state treasurer and Pennsylvania's secretary of public welfare. She and Pedro Ramos, the SRC chair who joined at about the same time, realized the district might not have enough cash to finish the school year.

"I was absolutely stunned at how close to the precipice we were," Houstoun said. "We understood unequivocally we were in trouble in a big way."

Arlene C. Ackerman, a superintendent who spent lavishly on programs, had departed in August 2011; turnaround specialist Thomas Knudsen was brought in as a "chief recovery officer" and then William R. Hite Jr. as superintendent.

What followed was grim: dozens of school closings and the layoffs of 3,783 more employees, including aides, counselors, even assistant principals. The commission attempted, unsuccessfully, to cancel the teachers' contract to save money. Two years running, the schools' opening was in doubt.

‘The hardest thing I’ve ever done’

In recent years, though, the district has largely righted its financial ship and focused on academics.

That is thanks in part to Hite, but the SRC also gets credit for "stabilizing the district after a truly impossibly chaotic period," said Joseph Dworetzky, a commission member from 2009 to 2014.

Although Philadelphia still faces an uphill battle in Harrisburg, there's no doubt that lawmakers have more faith in the school system than they did from 1998 to 2001, the crisis years in which the SRC was devised.

But the school board still faces challenges: just 33 percent of city students meet state standards in reading, and 19 in math. The district's four-year graduation rate is 67 percent. And while City Hall plans to send hundreds of millions more to the district over the next five years, that revenue is tied to future city budget cuts and better collections from tax delinquents, both of which could fall short.

The SRC veterans are uniquely positioned to know what awaits the nine people set to govern the district. What advice do they have for the board?

Beware of constant change on the program side, said Dworetzky. A case in point is the district's efforts to turn around struggling schools — with some in-house transformations, some schools given to charters to run, and others run as district schools by private providers. Nearly every year, the model changed in some way.

"It was an incredible frustration," said Dworetzky. "Sometimes when you start something, you just have to see it as a five-year program in order for it to work."

Find "high common ground," Houstoun said. "Every vote won't be 9-0, but you can't hold out and maneuver constantly to get your way. That is immensely destabilizing."

Dungee Glenn described being an SRC member as "the hardest thing I've ever done."

Balancing kids' interests "with the resources you have and with the bureaucracy, the way things have always been done," is a chore not easily managed, she said.

Historically, there's a lot of yelling at the people who run the school system. SRC meetings were often marked by people declaring their displeasure in very public ways — students tearfully pleading for a second chance for their imperiled schools, parents yelling about chaos in the classroom, teachers shutting down North Broad Street to protest the commission.

Dworetzky learned a trick from Ackerman, he said: "It's important to figure out what's the role of the person that is yelling at you, or talking to you … it's appropriate to think of the economic interests of the people that are talking."

Ramos, who served both on the last Board of Education in the 1990s and on the SRC, said that the board structure that's returning seems more conducive to "much more authentic contact with parents, prospective parents, community members."

One tradition he hopes is restored is holding board meetings in schools around the city several times a year. (The SRC met at district headquarters in Center City.)

"That was extremely valuable as a board member, and I think it was extremely valuable in demystifying the board to the public," Ramos said. "It gave the public a chance to size up and listen and engage in a way that was much more direct."

Expectations through the ceiling

The first official school board meeting is scheduled for Monday, July 9, with a public meet-and-greet to follow.

Street, who stood at the Convention Center lectern all those years ago, knows that changing governing bodies will not change the district's funding or academic issues.

"Expectations are going to be through the ceiling," Street said at a Philadelphia Education Fund event this month. Fundamental problems will remain. "To me, it's like saying, we don't have enough gas to get where we're going, so we're changing drivers. Changing drivers doesn't get you any more gas."

Dungee Glenn said the new school board can't let Harrisburg off the hook.

"There has to be a clear political strategy, not just a hope about how we can move an agenda to bring the money we need," she said. "The SRC is gone, but the state's responsibility is not."

But, Houstoun said, everyone is hoping for success.

"I hope change accelerates faster, I hope the school board gets the support that we didn't because of the nature of our political group," she said. "I'm praying for them."