Schools buzzword: 'Transparency' -- With all eyes on SRC, this could be a 'watershed moment'

Posted: October 07, 2011

THEY'LL JUST ABOUT bend over backwards in public, like a traveling band of Olympic gymnasts, to show people how serious they are now about transparency and honesty.

The School Reform Commission, the School District of Philadelphia, the mayor, state education officials - they all say that they understand how fed up people in this city are from the scandals and controversies, from the overwhelming sense that special interests get served first.

Ackerman.

Archie.

Evans.

Surprising, staggering budget shortfalls. The headaches have been endless.

Preventing similar headaches in the future, though, is one hell of a tall task.

Some of the prominent faces in the SRC and the school district have changed, but many of the powerful pols and well-connected companies that have influenced the district over the years remain.

"Certainly there's been a tendency at the district and Philadelphia in general to keep on doing things the same old way," said Zack Stalberg, president of the good-government group Committee of Seventy. "However, the Ackerman mess and the Markman report were two big body blows to the status quo. I can imagine life changing at the district."

Former Superintendent Paul Vallas said that the SRC has long needed a restructuring that allows for greater accountability and transparency.

"The SRC was secretive," said Vallas, adding that each member could wind up serving a very specific constituency of political insiders. "You never quite knew where they were coming from."

Changing that perception is among the goals of Pedro Ramos, who is awaiting state Senate confirmation as the new SRC chairman.

Ramos said yesterday that the SRC's code of ethics and the rules that govern how it does business need to be revisited, perhaps by a committee of outsiders.

Being more open with the public about how the district spends its money is also a top priority.

"I don't think we've had enough transparent, grown-up discussions about the district's finances," Ramos said.

The SRC will also be getting advice on best practices involving contracts and administrative matters from a "working group" of business education and experts whose mission was announced earlier this week by Mayor Nutter.

"There's some opportunity for this to be a watershed moment," Stalberg said, "but it's going to take some time."

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