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Commentary: Wolf was wrong on SRC firing

In an effort to contribute more effectively to our collective work, I am taking action to return to my appointed position as chair of the School Reform Commission.

In an effort to contribute more effectively to our collective work, I am taking action to return to my appointed position as chair of the School Reform Commission.

I expect and understand that this will elicit a chorus of boos from some, and want to explain both the legal basis and the reason for taking action now.

First, some background.

Gov. Wolf opposes all new charters, as do the powerful teachers' unions that lavished $1.6 million to elect him.

Wolf purported to remove me as chair in March 2015, shortly after the SRC had voted to approve five new charter schools - and voted down 34 others. Under the state legislation that authorized a cigarette tax to provide funding for Philadelphia's schools, the SRC was required to accept new charter applications, something it had not done in seven years.

In advance of the vote on 39 applications, the governor instructed me to vote down any new charters. Some leaders of the General Assembly directed us to approve at least 16 new charters.

Rather than bowing to political pressure, the SRC performed its umpire-like role as charter authorizer, calling balls and strikes based on the quality of applications and on state law. (State law does not permit funding availability to serve as a basis for denying a charter application.)

The governor announced that he was appointing a fellow SRC member, Marge Neff, who had voted against all of the charter applications, as chair.

Weighing in at the time, the Inquirer Editorial Board said that the SRC's approach seemed like a reasonable compromise and presciently observed of Wolf's action to unseat me as chair:

"That Wolf took such a harsh step suggests a reluctance to compromise when compromise is needed - and not just when it comes to expanding charter schools."

Second, the legal basis.

The law states that none of us on the SRC may be removed from "office" without proof of wrongdoing in writing. The chair is an "office," as that term's plain meaning makes clear: "a position of authority to exercise a public function."

The governor did not provide written proof of any wrongdoing - there is no wrongdoing to point to - and, as a result, his action was illegal.

When the governor suddenly defunded the Public Employee Retirement Commission, an independent public pension watchdog, the Inquirer Editorial Board noted that the governor appeared bent on silencing dissent by removing any person or entity that disagrees with him. The decision was reversed in a settlement approved by the Commonwealth Court.

Similarly, Wolf's firing of the Office of Open Records chief was reversed by the Commonwealth Court, whose ruling was upheld by the Supreme Court.

The parallels to my own removal are striking. The governor sent the message that the SRC is political and would follow his will or there would be consequences. However, the legislature purposefully gave a term to commissioners of five years - as compared with the four-year term of a governor - because it intended the SRC to be above the fray, with the ability to make decisions ignoring the political winds of the day.

To protect the SRC's independence and mission, I am now fighting Wolf's action in court.

Finally, why now?

Last spring, I indicated that I would fight my illegal removal in court. People I respect, including teachers, colleagues, and citizens, urged me to give the new governor a chance, fearing a lawsuit at that time might exacerbate tensions in Harrisburg and risk the funding that Philadelphia's public school students urgently need. I agreed not to go to court at that time.

In the year since, it has become painfully clear that the governor's strategies, tactics, and unwillingness to compromise have not been successful.

I now ask the courts to rule on a simple matter of law, with no facts in dispute: Namely, does the governor have the power to remove the chair of the SRC without following the law?

To those who will contend that this will be a distraction for the SRC, I would point to how well the members of the commission have worked together over the past year. We respect one another as colleagues and are not distracted by politics. The SRC members bring complementary strengths and perspectives to our volunteer service. This action is not a reflection on my colleagues.

I hope the courts will decide this matter prior to the expiration of three SRC terms in January 2017, including Neff's. Continuity and support of Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. are crucial to the success of the School District's Action Plan as we hopefully have resources to invest and make the transition to local control over the next few years.

The status quo won't do. Change is urgent. Crippling, long-standing, harmful rules must go. Innovation is critical. Innovation requires choice. Choice is a part of Hite's Action Plan. I signed up to lead that fight. I was illegally removed. The time for acquiescence is over.

Bill Green is a member of Philadelphia's School Reform Commission.