Nameplates were hurriedly shuffled when Marjorie Neff took her place as chairwoman of the School Reform Commission at Thursday night's monthly meeting.
The audience showered Neff with applause as she sat beside Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. She then thanked former Chairman Bill Green, seated two seats to her right, for his service.
Hite addressed news, first reported by Inquirer columnist Mike Newall, that the district allowed thousands of books to pile up in a dusty, block-long basement beneath its headquarters. A second stockpile sits overflowing in the hallways and classrooms of a now-closed high school.
"I take full responsibility," Hite said, if usable textbooks are found to have gone ignored. Hite said that would be "totally and wholly unacceptable."
He said the district was committed to addressing the stockpile of books and other materials, including musical instruments.
"In December, we laid out a clear plan," he said. "We were open and transparent about the situation and provided a solution."
When district officials reviewed the books, Hite said, they found many - gathered from two dozen closed schools and piled high in the basement - outdated. He said the district would work with Textbook Warehouse, a Georgia company, to inventory the textbooks and determine what is usable. The rest will then be donated to families and educational groups or sold.
Karel Kilimnik, a retired teacher and cofounder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, credited the "power of the press" for the district's message that it would identify opportunities for volunteers to assist with distributing the books.
Neff begins as chair of the SRC with the district hopeful that it may receive $159 million in new money from the state and $105 million from the city. But nothing is guaranteed, and the future of the SRC itself is a politically hot topic.
Last month, the Green-led SRC approved five new charter school applications. Days later, Gov. Wolf stripped Green of his chairmanship and handed the mantle to Neff, who did not vote in favor of the new charters.
Neff, a recently retired principal at the high-performing Masterman School, becomes chair at a time when nearly half of people surveyed want the five-member SRC replaced by local school board, according to a new report by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Several mayoral candidates share that view.
Also Thursday, the SRC announced that Arise Academy Charter High School and the district had agreed that the school would cease operation in June. In recent years, a new management team attempted to spark a turnaround and shore up lagging finances. The announcement marked a change from earlier efforts by Arise leaders to challenge the closure.
"We think it's the right decision," said Roberta Trombetta, acting chief executive of Arise. "We're not giving up on the kids. We just have to find another way to do it."
As far back as last March, the SRC sought to close the West Oak Lane high school after years of high student turnover and poor performance on state standardized tests.
Arise opened in 2009 as the nation's first charter school for students living in foster care. Trombetta said the school would work with the district to keep the students together as they make the change to permanent homes. The closing uproots about 95 at-risk students who are under the supervision of the courts or the Department of Human Services.