Education has always been a deep fault line in the city, which might be healed by the move back toward local control. (Or, it might not.) There are many who worry that without state oversight, Harrisburg will not be as invested in providing necessary funding for the schools, although a recent analysis by the state Department of Education showed that Philadelphia actually got less state school aid than it should have, based on need alone. In actual dollar terms, the contributions from the state have remained about the same (when adjusted for inflation) since the SRC's creation in 2001.
Still, anyone expecting that local control will magically translate into more state dollars should prepare for a rude awakening. The city has already agreed to cover much of the district's $1 billion deficit over the next five years, though we don't yet know how that will happen.
The new board won't be installed until March; the mayor is assembling a nominating panel who will submit 27 names of potential members; Mayor Kenney will select nine.
While we support this move to local control, and recognize the deep talent pool, we have to admit to some trepidation. The task of governing a large and challenged district in a city with a million special interests will be daunting. And we know this in part by the actions of the SRC. That body was reviled by many, but individual members had credibility. And as a board, they made hard and unpopular decisions that have put the district on stable footing. Here is our advice for the new school board.
DON'T CONFUSE management with governance. We have an able superintendent and an administrative staff to manage the daily operations of the school district. William Hite has pushed the district to make progress in a number of areas, including financial stability, and progress in academic achievement and graduation rates. Don't get into the weeds of the day to day: You have bigger fish to fry — like approving the budget and resolving future labor contracts.
DON'T LOSE SIGHT of the fact you are a member of a board, not one of nine people fighting to set the agenda or further your personal interests … or that of your sponsor.
DON'T WAIT to make the hard decisions. If you postpone making unpopular cuts or decisions until the following year, the solution will be even more daunting — and probably more unpopular.
DON'T UNDERESTIMATE the commitment this will take. Serving on the school board may not be a full time job, but it could be. Your education on the complex issues facing the district won't be easy. The time wrestling with the other board members to find solutions will be considerable.
DON'T OVERLOOK the fact that the 253 people in the statehouse in Harrisburg — or at least a large percentage of them — will be happy if you fail.
DON'T FORGET that more than 200,000 children — and their futures — are counting on you to succeed.