The hallmark of the School Reform Commission , since its inception, has been its contempt for the stakeholders of the district. For years, the SRC held public meetings on weekday afternoons, a time when most of the public was unable to attend. They abolished their Planning Meetings, when actual deliberation took place, and went to one meeting a month. At the same time, much of the real decision-making shifted to private venues including the boards of the Philadelphia School Partnership, the William Penn Foundation, and the Great Schools Compact Committee. That Committee was formed for the purpose of enacting the mandates of the Gates Compact, enacted by the SRC without any public vote or discussion.
This year, with no announcement or explanation, the SRC stopped holding its monthly Strategic Policy and Planning Meetings.
The rules, such as they are, for listing speakers for each meeting, have always been nebulous and secretive. No matter when you called, or what your topic was, there was no way to know where you would appear on the list until you arrived. Many times our members, who called well in advance, would end up at the bottom of the list. Questions to SRC were routinely ignored; the only answer being: we do it how we do it and you have nothing to say about it. The most egregious example of this abuse of power was APPS member Lisa Haver placed at the bottom of the list–# 65—at last month’s meeting, even though she had called weeks before to register.
At the December 2015 meeting, Chairwoman Marjorie Neff announced that rules for speakers would be changed. The SRC wanted to give priority to those who had not spoken before. The new rules, posted on the district website, stated that speakers would be grouped by topic and that topics would be listed “in the order in which they were registered.” Those who had not spoken at the previous meeting would be given priority “within each topic area.” But when our members asked where there topic was on the list when they registered to speak, the SRC staff refused to divulge that information. In other words, you’ll just have to trust us. Even worse, some members found that their names were not on the list at all.
After a series of fruitless emails, phone calls, and in-person visits with SRC staff, APPS co-founder Lisa Haver sent the following letter to Chairwoman Neff on Wednesday, January 13, 2016:
Dear Ms. Neff:
At December’s meeting, you announced that the SRC would be changing rules for listing speakers. The website posted those new rules including: “Other speakers will be grouped by topic, based on the order in which their topics were registered.” After communicating with SRC by email, phone and in person, it has become apparent that the SRC never intended to follow these rules.
Several members reported that the person who took their call did not know there were new rules. I had conversations with three separate staffers in which I had to explain the rules. When people asked which number their topic was on the list so far, they were told that information was not available. Of course, that is the only way to know whether the SRC is following its own rules in listing speakers. The alternative is to trust that the SRC is listing speakers as promised. You can understand why our members are not inclined to trust what the SRC does in this matter.
When I spoke with SRC Chief of Staff Claire Landau on Tuesday, it seemed that she did not understand the rules either. She told me that speakers’ topics would be listed according to whether the person calling had attended the previous meeting. After I explained it again, while we both looked at the posted rules, she told me that the “intention” of the SRC was to give priority to new speakers, then told me that she would communicate to the SRC that it should “clarify” its rules on the website. I told her that I found it hard to believe that you would make an announcement to the public, post new rules, then change those rules even before the next meeting and after people had already signed up to speak.
The SRC is a governmental body. It must be accountable to the public. It is not appropriate for the SRC to ask the public to trust them with no knowledge of what they are doing. That goes against American law and tradition which says that citizens have a right to know what its government is doing.
This latest episode confirms our belief that Philadelphia needs an elected school board. In last May’s primary election, the city’s residents voted overwhelmingly – 120,290 to 4,127 – to approve a change in the Home Rule Charter calling for the abolition of the School Reform Commission.