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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Governing the School District of Philadelphia.

There is a conversation happening in the City around the issue of local control of the School District of Philadelphia, and moving away from a state run district. It is virtually inarguable that the state controlled School Reform Commission has not solved the issues of the District. Indeed, one could argue that the premise that governance was the problem has been proven false.  Clearly, the citizens of Philadelphia must have more say, while still ensuring that those who allocate funding are directly engaged with the decision making.
Local control most likely means either an elected board or Mayoral control, each presenting challenges.  There are numerous troubling issues with Mayoral control: it has been trendy, but it is not a proven improvement strategy and people should be wary of it.  Furthermore, it is not substantially different that the SRC – a handful of appointments, insulated from the public and other elected officials.  Headed into an election year, voters should be skeptical at best about people who want to be handed the only set of keys to the district.

There are also reasonable concerns about how an elected school board might work, including the influence of money and political deals. But these worries alone do not outweigh the need to have democratic access to how the district is run.

And all this focus on governance takes us away from the key questions: resources and support.  A significant issue for the district has been insufficient resources to provide an adequate education for students.  Because of this fact, there are advantages to the state government having some direct responsibility for our schools. And, some people worry that if the school board were to become entirely elected, the state could continue to fail to meet its responsibility but all fingers would point to the local board, which will always be at the mercy of city and state allocations.

We must restore confidence in the decision making process at the district.  Therefore we must take steps to both build confidence at the community level AND within government, and provide the people who allocate the funding with the access they need to both understand and be accountable for how resources are being used. This includes our elected officials with budgetary control, and we the people – the stakeholders, the community that prospers or falters with the success of its schools, the taxpayers.

Perhaps there is a way to achieve this. For consideration, here is a straw man proposal to change the distribution of appointed positions to a broader group of elected officials, including local ones, AND add a contingency of elected members - a hybrid which can try to harness the needs that are represented by both approaches.

We could create a 9 member board (thus bringing Philadelphia into line with other PA school boards) consisting of 4 elected and 5 appointed members. All of the various entities that have responsibility to ensure the well-being of the Commonwealth’s largest school district would have someone at the table.  The Governor could appoint two, the members of the Philadelphia General Assembly delegation to Harrisburg could appoint one (for example, a nominee and confirmation process); and then one by the Mayor and one by approval of City Council. The people of Philadelphia would control a clear majority: 4 elected and 2 put in place by our local elected Mayor and City Council. 

With elected officials appointing people to a portion of the seats, they would have an inside view on difficult discussions, decisions and the challenges faced, as well as the opportunity to influence those decisions with a vote.

The four elected positions could serve for 4 years (on staggered terms, with elections being held every two years) which would give the people of Philadelphia direct access to the governance of the district – people who are on the inside, yet who are accountable to the citizens of Philadelphia and must face them when asking to continue to serve, not just obligated to the entity that appointed them.  Then, if the direction of the board is out of step with the community, we have the opportunity to act.

If elected officials have a direct line into the operations of the governing body, it will hold them to a closer level of participation and responsibility. And, the citizenry of Philadelphia would elect people who are directly accountable to the community. Presumably these people could ensure that key discussions are held in public and that the rest of us are more aware of what is being proposed and undertaken.

This arrangement could help prevent lock-step action – the voters of Philadelphia would have the biggest bloc of votes, but coalitions would have to be built. It also keeps the General Assembly, in particular, our local representatives, and the Governor, with skin in the game – appointees who are present, getting information and keeping a line of communication open with the elected officials who are responsible for allocating resources and effective oversight. 

The mere presence of popularly elected people could impact the way that the appointed people serve, and vice versa, raising the bar for all.

Rather than talking about the form of governance, let’s talk about what we need from it: understanding the issues facing the district as a community, transparency, responsibility and tying authority and finances together.

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