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A push to end the SRC - but is Kenney on board?

Activists called for an end to the School Reform Commission, Philadelphia schools' governing body for the past 16 years. To insulate Philadelphia from looming state budget problems, they say the SRC must vote to dissolve itself by the end of the year.

Ismael Jimenez, 10, a student at Logan Elementary School, holds a sign calling for an end to the SRC.
Ismael Jimenez, 10, a student at Logan Elementary School, holds a sign calling for an end to the SRC.Read moreKRISTEN A. GRAHAM / Staff

Even as a group of students, teachers and activists gathered to demand that the School Reform Commission dissolve itself soon, signs emerged from City Hall on Wednesday that local control of the city's schools is not assured.

The five-member SRC, created 16 years ago to oversee the Philadelphia School District in a time of fiscal and academic crisis, was not designed to be permanent. Growing momentum — new SRC members, a mayor and governor publicly committed to the idea of more local control — had suggested that the panel's days were numbered.

But a source familiar with the Kenney administration's internal discussions about the SRC's future said the mayor's support for a governance shift is less firm than some opponents of the panel are hoping.

"The primary issue the administration is currently debating is whether local control will actually improve the quality of Philly schools," the source, who was not permitted to share knowledge of the discussions publicly, said Wednesday. "They're acutely aware that a governance change by itself won't achieve that, and could even make things worse."

Unlike every other school system in the state, Philadelphia has never had an elected school board. City Hall insiders worry that an elected board could be swayed or divided by special interests. "At the same time, though, they know that under the SRC, there's no ultimate accountability to any one person and that lack of accountability also seriously hinders school improvement," said the source.

Created by the state legislature, the commission controls its own fate. Its five members can vote to dissolve the SRC. Without a proposal for a new board of education, that could hand the reins of city schools back to a board appointed by the mayor.

With its three gubernatorial picks and two mayoral appointees, the SRC was supposed to mean more state money for Philadelphia schools. And it did, at first. That has not been the reality for most of its in existence, though.

Gov. Wolf, who has been friendly to Philadelphia schools, has said he's in favor of abolishing the SRC, but has not shown any urgency on the matter.

When he was running for mayor in 2015, Kenney said he liked the idea of local control, but expressed reservations. Among his concerns: What if the end of the SRC meant the state, which now funds about half of the school system's $3 billion budget, used that as an excuse to disinvest in Philadelphia?

At their rally Wednesday outside City Hall, members of Our City, Our Schools, a coalition pushing for an end to the SRC, laid out a timeline. They want a dissolution vote by the fall in order for a new governance structure to be in place for the 2018-19 school year.

"The SRC has failed our children tremendously," said Antoine Little, father of three children in district schools and chair of Our City Our Schools. "The SRC is a failed experiment."

Activists said they had held multiple meetings with members of the Kenney administration on the issue, but had failed to secure any commitments on the fate of the commission.

Neither, they said, have they received commitments from any SRC member to meet their timeline. No vote is on the SRC's upcoming meeting agenda.

Ismael Jimenez, a history teacher at Kensington Creative and Performing Arts High School and member of the Caucus of Working Educators, a group of activist teachers, said he was frustrated.

"I quickly came to the conclusion that politics were more important than promises," said Jimenez.

But the timing is crucial, activists say. The governor's mansion is up for grabs in 2018, and the state's shaky fiscal health means that local control is a must to insulate city schools against looming budget cuts.

"We don't want to lose any leverage to go for local control," Jimenez said.

Absent state legislation to scotch the SRC, which seems unlikely, at least three members of the SRC would have to agree to abolish the panel.

Estelle Richman, the newest SRC member, a Wolf nominee, has said publicly that while she wants local control, she does not expect the SRC to go away quickly.

Dissolving the SRC now might also mean more pressure on the city as the school system prepares to grapple with its own fiscal cliff. It is projecting a deficit of more than $100 million beginning next year.

The SRC lacks the authority to raise its own revenues.

The mayor's office had no comment on the renewed call for local control.

J.J. Abbott, spokesman for Gov. Wolf, said he was not aware of any movement to dissolve the SRC, "but the governor has repeatedly expressed his support for local control of the School District of Philadelphia."

Liz Navratil of the Harrisburg bureau contributed to this article.