SRC needs to learn its ABCs

Posted: August 25, 2009

AS INTERIM chief executive officer of the Philadelphia schools in 2000-2001, there were many days I wished I'd a magic wand to make board members disappear. I had a job to do, so how could I answer all their questions, from the mundane to the important to the inappropriate?

So I can understand how School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman might've been frustrated by inquisitive SRC member Heidi Ramirez, who recently announced her resignation, citing her frustration at being ignored.

Fortunately, I never had that magic wand and, I hope, Ackerman won't get one, either. Board members are essential to the public process and the more thoughtful they are, like Ramirez, the better.

Let's remember why the SRC was created. It was intended to oversee the school district after state leaders lost confidence in the district and its governance and refused to provide more funding without more state oversight.

The SRC wasn't created to become simply another school board. It was intended to be an independent, powerful quasi-regulatory group with a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers, students, their parents, the city and the state.

After an initial flurry of publicity and goodwill, the SRC failed to provide the oversight needed to rein in the district's then-chief executive officer, the energetic Paul Vallas. Despite getting an influx of significant state and city financial aid, the district soon found itself mired in red ink.

The SRC now consists of two new members, including chairman Robert Archie; a member who rarely asks a question publicly; and one vacancy in addition to the departing Ramirez, apparently shunned for asking probing questions like "How much will it cost?"

Add to this mix a strong-willed Ackerman, no shrinking violet. She touts her experience of having headed two other urban districts and talks about "the children" as if she is the only one who cares about the students.

If there seems to be a mismatch between the SRC and its No. 1 employee, it's because there apparently is. That should be a red flag for those who believe in a healthy system of checks and balances.

As for other checks and balances the independent school-safety-advocate post was recently eliminated by the state. (Ackerman also wanted the district's inspector general to report to her rather than the SRC.) Even the largest and most vocal union, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, has been significantly weakened, for better or worse, paying the price for clinging to the past rather than changing with the times.

Our governor and mayor are bogged down with their own fiscal emergencies, which aren't likely to go away quickly regardless of the eventual passage of a state budget. And City Council pays scant attention to school district issues.

Finally, it must be noted that our newspapers are fighting for their lives and don't have enough resources to adequately cover public education. In fact, the Ramirez resignation was first reported by the small independent Philadelphia Public School Notebook.

If there was any institution in town that needs oversight, it's our schools. Its budget of more than $3 billion is nearly the size of the city's, and it has more employees. The potential for skulduggery is far greater than in city government, and its importance to the economic and fiscal health of the city cannot be overstated.

The Ackerman-Ramirez affair may seem like a lot of who-struck-John. But it represents a far more important issue. Just who will provide the financial, intellectual and policy oversight for public education in Philadelphia? If the SRC is to perform its role, it needs members with guts, intellectual curiosity and an understanding of the ABCs of their job.

A is for accountability. Ensure that the superintendent is meeting her timetables, that the budget is realistic and that variances are known as soon as possible. Ensure that contracts are bid and rewarded fairly, that employees are treated equitably.

B is for boldness. We can't afford timid souls on the SRC. We need insightful members who provide probing, out-of-the-box thinking on how to transform the district. They need to know the difference between having the superintendent's back when she makes tough decisions and backing off for fear of her wrath.

C is for credibility. Listen and respond to questions and concerns of parents and other interested parties. The public wants to know that its concerns are being heard. They are the customers - and are leaving our schools in droves.

State Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, who has denied being involved in any deal over the Ramirez resignation, had it right when he said he thought SRC members should have "demonstrated knowledge in a relevant field" and "the strength of character to be independent and speak their mind."

With a doctorate and two master's degrees in education and two years on the SRC, the independent Ramirez sure fills that bill. Maybe Pillegi and Gov. Rendell can finally agree on one thing: Get Ramirez to stay.

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