The nominating panel convened under the rules of the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter for the purpose of selecting candidates for the new school board held its first meeting last week. That should have been cause for rejoicing, an event to usher in a new day for the city. After a 17-year reign, the state-imposed School Reform Commission voted last November to dissolve itself. A nine-person local school board, nominated by the panel and appointed by Mayor Kenney, will be seated July 1.
But the manner in which the panel has conducted its business so far, including its announcement that it will conduct deliberations in private, left advocates wondering why we fought so hard to bring back local control of our public schools.
The panel turned its back to the public. No remarks were addressed to the public, and there were no introductions of the 13 panel members chosen by the mayor. The agenda included no time for public speakers. Chair Wendell Pritchett announced that there would be only one more public meeting, when the panel would vote on the final 27 names to be sent to the mayor, from which he would choose the final nine.
Over the last couple of months, the Mayor's Office has sent surveys to some residents, asking (via multiple-choice questions) which qualifications should be set for board candidates; applications were posted online. Staff members have hosted town hall meetings to explain the transition. But the mayor is trying to shut the public out of the decision-making process.
This is what pseudo-democracy looks like.
Why the secrecy?
The mayor should ensure that selection of a public school board is as open a process as the law allows, given that the people of Philadelphia are the only residents of Pennsylvania unable to vote for school board representatives.
Members of this panel, and members of the future school board, are city officials. The people of this city have a right to know who will be making decisions that will affect them and their children for years. Placing this public body under a cone of silence does not lead to a formation of trust, an essential element of leadership. It only raises suspicions. Any person who does not want to ask questions in public should not be on the nominating panel. Any candidate who objects to answering questions about his or her background, experience, political associations, and views on public education should not serve on a board overseeing a $3 billion budget and making decisions about our children's future.
The Office of the Chief Integrity Officer instructed members of the panel that as city officials they must observe all ethical standards. That means obeying the law, not just declining lunch dates with potential candidates. It is the panel's legal and ethical duty to comply with the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act, which requires that all deliberations be conducted in open session.
The mayor's staff has cited the "executive session" provision of the Sunshine Act to justify directing the panel to meet in private.
Section 708 of the act lists the only reasons for which executive session can be held, and "deliberation" is not one of them. Nor is the "nomination of candidates" for appointment to the position of school board members listed as a reason for executive session. School board members are public officials, not employees of the School District.
Trading in one unelected and unaccountable board for another is not a progressive solution to the problems facing the district.
The stakeholders of the system — students, parents, teachers, and community members — must be able to express any reservations about nominees and be assured that there are no conflicts of interest. They must be part of an open process. Or does the mayor expect us just to gather in the City Hall courtyard waiting for the puff of white smoke to rise up from the tower?