SHOULD the School Reform Commission be dissolved in favor of an elected school board?
Newly elected Gov. Wolf supports the idea. So does a group of vocal education activists in the city. Some mayoral candidates are on board with the idea. The teachers union would vastly prefer an elected board to the governance system we have now - especially after the School Reform Commission's recent attempt to cancel union contracts, a move blocked last week by Commonwealth Court.
Despite support from some quarters, it's not a sure thing.
For one thing, the governor doesn't have the power to abolish the SRC; only the SRC can dissolve itself, a point of law that some Harrisburg Democrats unsuccessfully tried to alter back in October.
But before we even think of diving off this high board, let's be sure to take a good look at what lies below.
One question to ask deals with the past: Would an elected board - say, along the lines of City Council, with 10 neighborhood members and seven elected at-large - have handled the financial crisis of the last four years better than the SRC?
We know what the SRC did: It cut thousands of jobs, closed schools and cut every aspect of the school budget to the bone. It also has waged a war of attrition with the teachers union, demanding wage and work-rule concessions.
Superintendent William Hite set some of these actions in motion, but it was the five-member commission who backed him every step of the way - often in the face of strong political and neighborhood blowback.
Would an elected board stand so resolutely behind Hite? Or would district members demand that the schools in their areas stay open? And would at-large members - elected with strong support from the teachers union - be ready to back Hite's efforts to make significant changes in the union contract?
Obviously, we can't say for sure. But, given elected officials' disdain for controversy and their amazing powers to deny reality, we doubt that an elected board would act as cohesively, not to mention sensibly, as the SRC.
With its members appointed by the governor and mayor to fixed terms, it is insulated from the politics of the moment. Making hard choices won't make SRC members popular, but it won't get them unelected.
As it now stands, the SRC - like every other governing board the district has ever had, or could have - has a major disadvantage when compared with other school boards in the state. Those boards have the power to tax. No school board in Philadelphia history has had that. The SRC still has to go hat in hand to City Hall and Harrisburg to get the money it needs to run the district.
It's unrealistic to think that the lack of school funding would improve with a new governance structure. An elected board would have the same problem as the SRC in loosening Harrisburg's purse strings. The only solution would be to give it the same power enjoyed by the 499 other school boards in the state: the power to tax.
The district now gets 55 percent of the proceeds from the real-estate tax, the income from a tax on commercial renters, the proceeds of a liquor tax and all the income from the new $2-a-pack tax on cigarettes.
The power to tax is the central question for any form of local school governance, whether it be an appointed or elected board.