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Even traditional public school advocates, who had long sought to eliminate the SRC, expressed concerns about the transition process. Lisa Haver, of the Alliance For Philadelphia Public Schools, said her group had authored a recent op-ed expressing similar dissatisfaction with the lack of transparency within the nominating panel and issued a call for a directly elected school board.
“We’re calling for some transparency because there’s none right now. It’s a whole question of, why is the mayor being so secretive,” said Haver. “If someone ran a charter school that closed and they’re applying to be on the school board, I want to know about that. I think people who don’t believe in traditional public schools shouldn’t be on the new school board. And we really believe we should have a locally elected school board like every other county.”
One City Council staffer described the current situation as “a mess.” Others said that the Mayor’s Office and City Council were not on the same page regarding a timeline for the creation of the new local school board.
The nominating panel convened under the rules of the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter for the purpose of selecting candidates for the new school board held its first meeting last week. That should have been cause for rejoicing, an event to usher in a new day for the city. After a 17-year reign, the state-imposed School Reform Commission voted last November to dissolve itself. A nine-person local school board, nominated by the panel and appointed by Mayor Kenney, will be seated July 1.
But the manner in which the panel has conducted its business so far, including its announcement that it will conduct deliberations in private, left advocates wondering why we fought so hard to bring back local control of our public schools.
The panel turned its back to the public. No remarks were addressed to the public, and there were no introductions of the 13 panel members chosen by the mayor. The agenda included no time for public speakers. Chair Wendell Pritchett announced that there would be only one more public meeting, when the panel would vote on the final 27 names to be sent to the mayor, from which he would choose the final nine.
Over the past couple of months, the Mayor’s Office has sent surveys to some residents, asking (via multiple-choice questions) which qualifications should be set for board candidates; applications were posted online. Staff members have hosted town hall meetings to explain the transition. But the mayor is trying to shut the public out of the decision-making process.
This is what pseudo-democracy looks like.
Why the secrecy?
The mayor should ensure that selection of a public school board is as open a process as the law allows, given that the people of Philadelphia are the only residents of Pennsylvania unable to vote for school board representatives.
Members of this panel, and members of the future school board, are city officials. The people of this city have a right to know who will be making decisions that will affect them and their children for years. Placing this public body under a cone of silence does not lead to a formation of trust, an essential element of leadership. It only raises suspicions. Any person who does not want to ask questions in public should not be on the nominating panel. Any candidate who objects to answering questions about his or her background, experience, political associations, and views on public education should not serve on a board overseeing a $3 billion budget and making decisions about our children’s future.
The Office of the Chief Integrity Officer instructed members of the panel that as city officials they must observe all ethical standards. That means obeying the law, not just declining lunch dates with potential candidates. It is the panel’s legal and ethical duty to comply with the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act, which requires that all deliberations be conducted in open session.
The mayor’s staff has cited the “executive session” provision of the Sunshine Act to justify directing the panel to meet in private.
Section 708 of the act lists the only reasons for which executive session can be held, and “deliberation” is not one of them. Nor is the “nomination of candidates” for appointment to the position of school board members listed as a reason for executive session. School board members are public officials, not employees of the school district.
Trading in one unelected, unaccountable board for another is not a progressive solution to the problems facing the district.
The stakeholders of the system — students, parents, teachers, and community members — must be able to express any reservations about nominees and be assured that there are no conflicts of interest. They must be part of an open process. Or does the mayor expect us just to gather in the City Hall courtyard waiting for the puff of white smoke to rise up from the tower?
A point of for the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools (APPS) is transparency. APPS members sued the SRC in 2014 for violating the state’s Sunshine Act, which sets rules for the the conduct of government business, and won a settlement that reshaped the way the SRC dealt with issue of transparency—although APPS is quick to point out it’s a settlement they feel has not been consistently honored. For instance, the SRC often posts full descriptions of SRC resolutions after they have been voted on instead of in advance.
“The [nominating] panel is convened under the rules of the City Charter,” Haver said. “They are not an advisory panel. They are charged with selecting candidates for public office. They are city officials, and were addressed as such by members of the Mayor’s office.”
“As such, all of their meetings, including any committee meetings, must follow the provisions of the PA Sunshine Act,” she said. “Selection of candidates, and any deliberation about candidates, for this panel, is official action.”
The Mayor’s office disagrees with this interpretation of the Act.
“We appreciate the Alliance’s understandable desire to conduct as much public business as practicable in public,” Peterson said in a statement. “But the Alliance’s reading of the Sunshine Act is far from complete.”
She cited a section of the act that allows for deliberations involving political appointments to be conducted in closed-door executive sessions.
“A candid discussion about the strength and weaknesses of potentially hundreds of possible candidates cannot effectively be conducted in public,” she said. “It is also very likely that candidates will be more forthcoming about potential issues or conflicts of interest in private discussions.”
Haver suggested her organization is considering further action.
“APPS members have not fought against the lack of transparency by the SRC only to sit by and watch another board conduct its business in the same manner. We will be addressing our concerns to the panel and to the Mayor in the coming days.”