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Philly takes back control of its schools: Why now?

As recently as late summer, the Kenney administration wasn't sure the time was right to take back control of city schools. But in the last several weeks, people in the know began hearing buzz: Local control would happen, and soon, with an SRC vote in November to allow for an appointed school board to take over July 1.

At the October SRC meeting, members of the public demand an end to the state-run board.
At the October SRC meeting, members of the public demand an end to the state-run board.Read moreGENEVA HEFFERNAN / Staff Photographer

Six weeks ago, State Rep. John Taylor got a call from Mayor Kenney: What did the Philadelphia Republican think, the mayor asked, about ending state control of the city schools sooner rather than later?

For the School Reform Commission to be dissolved this year and a new, locally appointed board to be in place for the 2018-19 school term, the SRC would have to self-destruct by the end of this year.

Kenney was floating the idea of local control with a guy who's always been a bridge — a Philadelphian, but a Republican. It was one of a number of calls the mayor had made to various officials floating the idea of local control.

"'If it's going to be any time soon, it has to be right now,'" Taylor recalled Kenney saying. Taylor said he agreed.

On Thursday, Kenney delivered the news to a cheering audience gathered in City Council chambers that he was asking the SRC to dissolve itself and preparing to cover much of the billion-dollar deficit that will soon loom for the Philadelphia School District. A nine-member school board will take the SRC's place in July.

Kenney said that, behind the scenes, he had been building toward this moment since he won election two years ago, and stressed how Philadelphia's future is dependent on the success of its schools. But some skeptics, both in the city and Harrisburg, said that politics were at play – a claim the decision-makers rejected.

Either way, Kenney's historic call was 16 years in the making.

The SRC was created in December 2001, amid a fiscal crisis in a trade-off with the state: more money for more oversight. But it was never meant to be permanent, and the extra state money dried up years ago.

Philadelphians endorsed the idea of local control in a nonbinding 2015 referendum, and pressure had ratcheted up to end the state-run body in the last year, with the majority of the five-member SRC warm to the idea of local control.

But as recently as late summer, officials familiar with the Kenney administration's internal discussions indicated the end was not necessarily near, that the mayor and his advisers were wrestling with whether local control would actually improve the quality of education for the district's 200,000 students in traditional public and charter schools.

There was a shift in the last few months, though. People in the know began hearing buzz: Local control would happen, and soon, with an SRC vote in November to allow for an appointed school board to take over July 1.

Taylor said he got the call from Kenney this fall.

"It's been on people's minds for a long time," Taylor said, "but the timing was right."

Kenney has said that the SRC created a structure that made the schools accountable to no one, and that he knows the state will not step in to cover the district's coming deficit — about $100 million for fiscal 2019, and $1 billion over five years. The mayor will introduce a budget in February that fills that gap, he said — a process he warned would be "difficult" for city residents.

If Philadelphia is going to pay for its schools, Kenney's thinking goes, it ought to have control over them, and hold him responsible for them.

"We're either going to sink or swim," the mayor said in a meeting with the Inquirer and Daily News editorial board.


Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, said the link is clear — Philadelphia will soon have to amp up its local investment in schools. A major deficit was already on the horizon for the district, but a teachers' contract worth $395 million, signed in June after a four-year stalemate, only added urgency.

With the city stepping up, said Cooper, a veteran of state and local government, "then it's time for Philadelphia to have a local school board."

A big bump in school funding, then — and matching possible tax increases — would seem easier for Council and city residents to swallow if the schools belong to them.

Others hold a darker view of the timing.

Stephen Miskin, a spokesman for House Republicans, said the local control move, and its timing, was "really union-driven."

Bill Green, an SRC member and former City Council member, went one step further.

"It's an entirely political decision," said Green. He expected the SRC would go away soon, but for the 2019-20 school year, not 2018-19, Green said.

"Unfortunately, the governor decided that if he was going to get [teacher's union] money for his reelection so he could spend less of his own, he would have to keep his promise prior to the election of eliminating the School Reform Commission," said Green. "The PFT have successfully taken the local control timeline over."

Teachers were key to the 2014 win of Wolf, who has supported local control of Philadelphia schools since his time as a candidate. The union gave millions to his campaign, and 2,000 city teachers turned out on Election Day to get out the vote on his behalf.

Green has long warred with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, whose contract he attempted to cancel as chair of the SRC — a move that was declared illegal by the state Supreme Court. Green also has a lawsuit against Gov. Wolf pending to return him to leadership of the SRC.

J.J. Abbott, Wolf's spokesman, said Green's allegation was not true.

"Gov. Wolf has always supported local control," Abbott said in a statement. "That is absurd, and Bill Green has no credibility."

Jerry Jordan, PFT president, also shot down Green's assertion as "totally wrong." Jordan said the union's continuing support of Wolf, who faces a tough reelection battle, "was not conditional on the timing of local control."

The PFT supported both Wolf and Kenney in their quests to get elected, but was never under the impression that either would immediately push for local control once in their offices, according to a source within the union.

Then the fall hit, and word began to spread that local control was happening, and fast.

"It wasn't clear to us until recently that it was unfolding now," said the source, who asked for anonymity to be able to speak freely about internal PFT workings. "That was fine with us. We were not yet at the point where we were putting on constant pressure to say, 'This is what has to happen.' We had faith in the people we elected. We were ready to pivot to it whenever it happened."

The SRC must still take the vote to dissolve; a resolution is on the agenda for Nov. 16, though the results are a foregone conclusion.

Once that happens, a 13-member nominating committee will be formed to help draw up what will ultimately be a nine-member school board.

Green, who left Council and pinned his political fortunes on the SRC, had some advice for Kenney.

"As I learned myself getting involved in education," Green said, "my final words for the mayor are 'Be careful what you ask for.' "

Kenney said he knows what he is getting into.

"I can't shrug anymore," the mayor said. "Now I'm responsible."