By Christopher Paslay
Earlier this month, around the time the Phillies fell into their offensive funk, another local team found itself in trouble. The School Reform Commission, put in place a decade ago to help revive the city's struggling public schools, was beginning to implode.
Last week, two of the SRC's five members - Robert L. Archie, its chairman, and Johnny Irizarry - announced their immediate resignations. Along with a vacancy created by David F. Girard-diCarlo's departure in February, that forced the remaining members to postpone a meeting for lack of a quorum.
The turmoil came at a time when many were already questioning the commission's leadership. Last month, State Sen. Mike Stack (D., Phila.) proposed a bill that would replace the SRC with a nine-member board chosen by voters in a nonpartisan election. "The SRC has had 10 years and billions of dollars to turn things around," Stack said outside School District headquarters. "Ladies and gentlemen, it's not working."
In a recent editorial, The Inquirer called for the resignation of the entire SRC, and in a Daily News column, former interim School District CEO Phil Goldsmith wrote that the city needs school leaders with "character" who can rise above "petty politics such as who gets a job or what law firm or company gets the business."
Managing a large, urban school district such as Philadelphia's is not easy. But a few key flaws make it that much harder for the SRC:
Conflicts of interest: How is it that so many district officials are affiliated with organizations that have been on the payroll?
Archie's law firm, Duane Morris, has represented Foundations Inc., a nonprofit that has been paid millions to run failing district schools. Leroy Nunery II, now acting superintendent, is a former executive of Edison Schools, which also received millions to run failing district schools.
Girard-diCarlo is a former managing partner of the law firm Blank Rome, which the School District has paid more than $6 million since 2007. Pedro Ramos, who is awaiting state Senate confirmation to fill Girard-diCarlo's seat, was billing the district $325 an hour for legal work before his appointment by Gov. Corbett.
Lack of educators: The SRC has consisted primarily of lawyers and business people, not educators. Heidi Ramirez, who has a doctorate from Stanford's School of Education and is currently chief academic officer of Milwaukee Public Schools, quit the SRC in 2009 after only 17 months, saying her vision was "inconsistent" with the district's. When she dared question some of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman's decisions, Ramirez was publicly reprimanded and pressured to resign.
Irizarry, a longtime teacher and administrator, was the only remaining SRC member with a distinguished background in education until his recent resignation.
Perhaps Wendell E. Pritchett, Mayor Nutter's new appointment to the SRC, will fill the void. Pritchett taught law at the University of Pennsylvania and is the current chancellor of Rutgers-Camden, where he has tried to forge a relationship with city schools.
Undemocratic approach: The SRC has too often disregarded parents and the community. As a recent report on the scandal over who would run Martin Luther King High suggests, it seems to present public forums for show while the real decisions are made behind closed doors.
Philadelphians deserve to control their own schools. If legislators fail to replace the SRC with a locally elected board, the next commission should at least be knowledgeable about education, free of conflicts of interest, and considerate of the will of the people.