The School Reform Commission has no accountability, says state Sen. Mike Stack, and he wants to abolish the five-member panel.
That lack of accountability, according to Stack (D-5th dist.), has contributed to a gigantic budget deficit and other woes plaguing the School District of Philadelphia.
“The School Reform Commission has had ten years and billions of dollars to turn things around,” Stack said.
A decade ago, the commission replaced an appointed board when the city allowed for a state takeover in exchange for greater funding. The governor appoints three members, and the mayor gets two picks.
The five members pick a chairman and hire a superintendent. Controversial Superintendent Arlene Ackerman last month accepted a $905,000 buyout.
Fed up with the commission and leadership at the school district, Stack recently held a news conference on the front steps of school district headquarters at 440 N. Broad St. to call for abolition of the commission and creation of a school board that would be elected.
The three-term lawmaker described the Ackerman saga as a “sideshow.” Too many schools are failing to meet their Adequate Yearly Progress, and he faults the commission for a lack of oversight. Members are not accessible, he said.
“The last six months have been a debacle,” he said. “The School Reform Commission isn’t accountable to anyone.”
Stack was joined at the news conference by fellow Democratic Sens. Larry Farnese and LeAnna Washington of Philadelphia and Chester County’s Andrew Dinniman, the minority-party chairman of the Senate Education Committee.
Other co-sponsors include Philadelphia Democratic Sens. Tina Tartaglione and Shirley Kitchen.
Stack, whose mother, Felice, once served on the school board, wants voters in each of the nine school regions to elect a member. Members would be unpaid and would serve four-year terms.
Under Senate Bill 1210, members would be chosen in non-partisan elections. The board would draft annual five-year budget plans to be submitted to the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (PICA) for review and approval.
In addition, it would have the authority to approve labor, service and other contracts but would not have taxing power or the ability to incur debt.
The mayor would appoint the superintendent and have the power to fire that individual.
Every other school district in the state has an elected school board. Pennsylvania is one of only three states that choose school board members in partisan elections. Mississippi and Massachusetts are the others.
Dinniman is sponsoring Senate Bill 327, which would eliminate primary elections for school boards. Instead, candidates would be listed on the general election ballot without party affiliation.
“It’s time to get politics out of school boards,” he said.
Dinniman, citing a widespread concern about high dropout rates, said education seems to be the No. 1 issue among state officials.
Gov. Tom Corbett is a Republican, and the Senate and House of Representatives are solidly in GOP control. Yet, Dinniman is confident of progress on the issue of elected school boards.
“We will build the public momentum,” he said. “There will be bipartisan support.”
State Rep. Angel Cruz has introduced legislation creating a referendum to give voters the option to determine if the School Reform Commission or an elected school board should control the school district.
Farnese, whose late grandfather Andrew Farnese served as school board president in the 1990s, said state officials are hesitant to spend money on a school district with such a large budget deficit and what he sees as a lack of transparency. He thinks an elected school board would change that thinking.
“One thing I know it can do, and will do, is bring back accountability to the School District of Philadelphia,” he said.
Stack hopes to see school board candidates from a mixture of backgrounds, with all being passionate and dedicated and having common sense.
Joe McColgan, a Torresdale resident and Republican candidate for an at-large City Council seat, attended the news conference. His main issues in the campaign have included Ackerman’s ouster, elimination of the School Reform Commission and creation of an elected school board.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” he said of Stack’s bill returning greater power to Philadelphians. “If Harrisburg was smart, they’d give it back to us.” ••
Reporter Tom Waring can be reached at 215-354-3034 or firstname.lastname@example.org