Inquirer Editorial: Unfinished business

Pedro Ramos resigned as chairman of the School Reform Commission on Monday.
Pedro Ramos resigned as chairman of the School Reform Commission on Monday. (TOM GRALISH / Staff)
Posted: October 23, 2013

Pedro Ramos' second tour as the city's top education policymaker was shorter than it seemed. In just two years, Ramos presided over dramatic reductions in the School District's spending, operations, and facilities, enduring uproar from parents, employees, and the public as the price of demonstrating the schools' commitment to reform. Unfortunately, he is leaving a district that still has very little to show for the painful retrenchment of his tenure.

Ramos resigned as chairman of the School Reform Commission on Monday, citing urgent family concerns, which means the governor, who has the power to appoint three of the SRC's five members, will have to find a replacement - preferably one with some of Ramos' education experience and willingness to depart from past district practice.

More important, Gov. Corbett has to find adequate state support for a district that is, after all, being run by the state's own emissaries. If state officials continue to demand cuts from the district without producing more reliable and sufficient financial support, they will continue to raise legitimate questions about the existence and purpose of the SRC itself.

Ramos' service as president of the old city school board from 1995 to 2001, when the state took over the district under the auspices of the SRC, provoked skepticism when Corbett turned to him again in 2011. But Ramos signaled a welcome turn toward transparency, creating standing SRC committees and taking questions from the public during meetings.

After the troubled superintendency of Arlene Ackerman and a purge of the SRC, the Ramos-led commission also found competent administrative leadership. It appointed former Philadelphia Gas Works head Thomas Knudsen as chief recovery officer, followed by the current superintendent, William R. Hite Jr., formerly the schools chief in Prince George's County, Md.

Ramos' tenure saw the district close 30 schools as part of a controversial but necessary effort to bring the district's footprint in line with an enrollment that has been shrinking for decades. Also difficult but justified were some of the deep spending cuts that helped restore the district's fiscal balance. They culminated with this year's "doomsday" budget requiring thousands of layoffs, coupled with a plea for more state and city aid along with union concessions to overcome the district's structural deficit.

Sadly, the teachers' union, City Council, and Harrisburg have yet to respond to the district's cry for help with equivalent credibility. This is particularly puzzling in the case of Corbett, whose notion of recognizing the district's need and progress - as determined under the leadership of an SRC chairman he appointed - was to reluctantly release a one-time grant amounting to less than half of what district officials called for on an annual basis. That was better than nothing, but far short of enough.

That Ramos has to be replaced at this difficult time for the district is regrettable. It will cause even more regret if the governor doesn't ensure that Ramos' successor is accompanied by a defensible school funding policy.

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