Ax the School Reform Commission, lawmakers say

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 twar­

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