A consultant role seems more fitting for Thomas Knudsen, the new chief recovery officer, who spearheaded an impressive turnaround at Philadelphia Gas Works. As both superintendent and chief financial officer, Knudsen faces a massive task for a person with absolutely no experience in public education and little time to learn before his tenure ends.
SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos, who led the district during its 2001 takeover by the state, described the current fiscal crisis as "unprecedented in my adult lifetime." So why turn to a novice to turn things around? Precedents for an appointment like Knudsen's are few. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg twice tapped the private sector to run city schools with mixed results.
Knudsen, 69, certainly has impeccable credentials. PGW's "Mr. Fix It" transformed that financial morass into a much sounder company. But that was over a 10-year period. What can he do with the School District in six months? His hiring looks more like an ill-conceived, desperate attempt by the SRC to restore public confidence in its leadership.
Knudsen will need a crash course in education economics to make wise decisions on spending cuts and pending plans to decentralize the decision-making process in operating individual schools. Assisting him will be Penny Nixon, a former associate superintendent for academics, who will serve as chief academic officer.
It's important to remember that Philadelphia isn't the only school district trying to cope with damaging funding cuts by the state. And the future doesn't look good. The SRC has already projected a $269 million "structural gap" in the 2013 budget.
There are no quick fixes to the schools' financial difficulties. If the hiring of Knudsen was meant to inject some optimism into the discussion, it hasn't.