Former SRC member Joseph Dworetzky reflects about the job

Posted: January 24, 2014

Serving on the Philadelphia School Reform Commission was so important to Joseph Dworetzky that even after relocating to San Francisco two years ago he flew back at least once a month at his own expense for SRC meetings. The five commission members receive no pay.

At his final meeting as a commissioner last Thursday, the former city solicitor known for his persistent questioning of district staff, urged SRC members and Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. to continue pressing for stable funding for schools.

The financial crisis, he said, must be resolved to prevent recurrence of the shortfall that led to massive layoffs and program eliminations school year.

"There is no issue that's more important to Philadelphia's future than the school district," he said. "We're just in an impossible time."

In an interview with the Inquirer earlier this week, Dworetzky, who supported the academic reforms of former Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman known as Imagine 2014, reflected on his tenure of more than four years. "I think it would be fair to say, looking back, this is not how I imagined 2014," he said.

Dworetzky, 62, was nominated in 2009 by then-Gov. Ed Rendell.

Gov. Corbett last week nominated People's Emergency Center Chief Farah Jimenez for Dworetzky's seat and City Councilman Bill Green to fill the chairman's spot, which has been vacant since Pedro Ramos left in October to deal with family matters.

Both nominees must be approved by the state Senate. Dworetzky declined to comment on the candidates, other than to say, "I wish them well."

During Dworetzky's time on the SRC, he worked with two superintendents, two different SRC chairmen, and a changing cast of commissioners - all while the district was buffeted by political storms and beset by fluctuating finances.

"The district has been in one level of crisis or another," he said. Too often, he said, the decisions facing the SRC involve "choosing between two bad things and choosing the least worse."

Nonetheless, Dworetzky elected to remain on the SRC after his wife, Anne Banse, an official at Comcast Corp., was dispatched to San Francisco in 2011 to open the office of company's venture-capital affiliate, Comcast Ventures.

He said he stayed because he wanted to help the SRC which had just lost two members, including Chairman Robert L. Archie Jr., who had been caught up in a controversy over a proposed contract for Martin Luther King High School.

"The SRC had gotten through all the awful period after the Martin Luther King scandal" and disputes between Ackerman and Mayor Nutter, he recalled. "The SRC seemed to have been beaten up pretty good. It felt like it would be running away."

He participated in some SRC sessions by videoconference but since August of 2011, he flew back to Philadelphia at least once a month for SRC business.

Dworetzky carved out a niche, highlighting the cost of expanding charter schools, delving into the Renaissance plan to turn around low-performing schools, and asking questions about contracts.

He said by bringing attention "to the nuts-and-bolts issues, I felt I was able to make some positive changes."

He praised district staffers for their hard work and said of Hite: "We in Philadelphia should be pretty happy to have someone of his strength and perseverance."

Dworetzky said he was skeptical of charters at first. But he saw some were providing high-quality education and operators such as Mastery Charter Schools were finding success converting troubled district schools into Renaissance charters. But he also saw that other charters that were performing no better than district schools and others were worse.

He became concerned about the cost of charters and said their explosive growth had "brought the school district financially to its knees."

Although charters receive less taxpayer money per student than traditional schools, the district's $2.39 billion budget includes $674.8 million for charter student tuition.

Dworetzky said he was often at odds with his fellow commissioners over the scope and cost of charter expansions.

He said adding 1,000 seats is not an expansion.

"It is like building another school," he said.

Dworetzky supports continuing the Renaissance program. But rather than just giving poorly performing schools to charter operators, he believes the district should also use its Promise Academies to turn around neighborhood schools. The district runs the schools and provides them with additional resources.

He said: "I think that what people want and what we need to do is to focus attention on fixing existing schools."

martha.woodall@phillynews.com 215-854-2789

Staff writer Kristen A. Graham contributed to this article.

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