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Rendell, Street blast school panel

They wanted say in high-level picks

Gov. Rendell and Mayor Street yesterday blasted the Philadelphia School Reform Commission for hiring an interim chief executive and two other officials without consulting them.

They warned that the new officials are not qualified, and said their appointments may damage the cash-strapped school district's chances of receiving additional money.

The stern rebuke, issued in late afternoon in a joint, two-page statement, caught school officials off guard and caused them to huddle for hours to respond.

This high-level dust-up comes after Wednesday's raucous commission meeting during which one member, Sandra Dungee Glenn, walked out in protest, incensed that she had not been told that newly hired Chief Operating Officer Thomas Brady was set to be elevated to interim chief executive officer.

Brady will serve until a permanent replacement is found for CEO Paul Vallas, who will depart in late June.

Also hired was James Doosey, as interim chief financial officer, replacing CFO Folasade Olanipekun-Lewis. Former district official Fred Farlino was hired out of retirement to to fill Brady's former job.

But Rendell and Street said these moves surprised them and also broke an April agreement that commission Chairman James Nevels would consult them about any high-level appointments or terminations while the state, city and commission work on a 2007-08 budget deficit estimated by Rendell and Street at $190 million.

To balance the district's $2.18 billion budget, Vallas is asking for millions more in city and state funding and is proposing to slash nearly $100 million in spending.

"We cannot support the decision of the SRC majority to make these interim appointments," Rendell and Street said.

"We are concerned that the three-member interim team that has been appointed does not have the necessary combination of experience, relationships and qualifications needed within the district at this crucial juncture to permit the . . . district to successfully address the very formidable financial and academic challenges presently faced by the district," the Rendell-Street statement continued.

They noted that the appointments were made without notice to Glenn, a Street appointee, and before the installation of new commission member Denise McGregor Armbrister, a Rendell appointee. The appointments were made by Nevels and James Gallagher, appointees of former Republican Gov. Mark Schweiker, and Martin Bednarek, Street's other appointee.

Rendell and Street also said the departure of the CFO, the CEO and the deficit "are indications that the SRC is not providing the oversight to ensure fiscal and management stability of the district."

And they warned that increased funding is contingent upon "all major decisions that affect the district's finances and leadership [being] fully coordinated" with the state and city governments.

"The governor has been a friend of children since he was the mayor. I look forward to continuing my relationship with this governor who has provided unprecedented support for children in Philadelphia," Nevels said in his own, two-paragraph statement issued at 8:30 p.m.

"To that end, I am looking forward to a cordial and respectful conversation about children and a discussion of how we preserve and sustain the unprecedented gains in learning of the children in Philadelphia," Nevels continued. "I know he is committed to this, as is the SRC."

His statement did not mention Street.

Donna Cooper, Rendell's secretary of policy and planning, said Nevels' actions have made a tough budget situation more difficult.

"This action of the School Reform Commission, in particular the chairman, makes it difficult to sit down and have a conversation about increasing funding," she said. "When you are looking for people to increase their investment in you it's not prudent to surprise them in this manner."

Jacqueline Burnett, Street's secretary of education, said the mayor and governor are not asking the SRC to strip the three officials of their new jobs, but they are not clear how to proceed now.

"The governor and mayor are trying to figure out what the next steps will be. Certainly they want to have further conversations about how they view this interim process," she said, "but that's a conversation that they wanted to have before any interim appointments were made."

Said Cooper: "We were completely caught off guard and we have to think about implications, because obviously if the district needs additional investment from the state we have to trust that there is a team there that we can have a good relationship with."

But Ted Kirsch, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said he sensed that politics is at the root of this latest school district drama.

"It's not about kids, it's not about education, it's about politics and outside contracts," he said.

"Whoever has the majority three votes on the SRC wins. It's about legal contracts, consultants, purchasing, real estate deals . . . That's what they're fighting about. We're all going to be pushed to the side until this battle is over." *