[Updated with comments from Marjorie Neff]
Gov. Tom Wolf has announced he will replace School Reform Commission chairman Bill Green with Marjorie Neff, a fellow SRC member. The decision came a week after the Green-led SRC approved five new charter schools for the district, with Neff as the lone “no” vote.
Green announced Wolf’s action in a Sunday-night press release, followed an hour later by the official announcement from Wolf’s team. Green said he does not believe that Wolf has the legal authority to remove him as chair, and said he would seek a ruling from Commonwealth Court to resolve the matter.
“The School District of Philadelphia is in dire financial straits, and our children are being put at a disadvantage as a result of misguided cuts and poor decisions,” Wolf said in a written statement. “The district was forced to make major cutbacks in transportation, security, and janitorial services just to open on time last year. We must make new investments in education and provide a fresh path forward for Philadelphia’s schools.”
Green challenged the governor’s decision.
“I accepted the position of Chair with the understanding from the District’s own General Counsel that the Chair could not be removed from office. The SRC statute — 696(b)(2) — makes clear that no Commissioner may be removed from office except for misfeasance and malfeasance,” Green said in a statement released by the Philadelphia School District. (He also posted a video version of the announcement to the district’s Facebook page; some commenters criticized him for using district resources for “political” purposes.)
“I have to assume, however, that the Governor also has attorneys and that he would not purposefully take an action that is contrary to the law as I believe this action is. I believe this issue needs to be resolved, so I will be filing an action in Commonwealth Court seeking a ruling on the law. I will not attempt to block the Governor’s action in the interim but I will show up for work and do my job.”
A spokesman for Wolf said the governor’s intent is for Green to remain on the commission while handing the chairmanship to Neff.
Wolf is already defending a lawsuit from Pennsylvania Senate Republicans after he withdrew some 11th-hour appointments by Gov. Tom Corbett. This newest action seems likely to expand the state political battle over that issue, but the Wolf on Sunday seemed unconcerned. “The governor is well within his authority to remove Bill Green as chair,” his spokesman, Jeffrey Sheridan, said Sunday night.
Wolf’s press release made no mention of Green, instead announcing Neff’s appointment to the position and praising her history as an educator; prior to the SRC, Neff was principal at Masterman School.
“I am confident that Marjorie will be able to engage in a collaborative way the different interests involved in leading the school district and it will be refreshing to have an educator who understands the needs of our schools as chair,” Wolf said of Neff. “I look forward to working with her to restore cuts and reverse the public education deficit in Philadelphia.”
Neff, reached by telephone in Florida, said that the governor asked her to assume the chair this past week.
“I thought about it, I talked to my family about it, and I decided I would do it,” she said. “The governor said it was an opportunity to work with him on his vision for public education. I thought about my skill set, experiences I’ve had, I thought I could do it.”
She said she didn’t know exactly why Wolf made the decision, but “he asked me to make a contribution. I feel for the first time in a long time we have a governor interested in reinvesting in public education, and I’m excited to work with him on that.”
Green, a former city councilman, was named to chair the SRC last year by then-Gov. Tom Corbett — chosen over the objections of Mayor Michael Nutter, with whom he had clashed on council. Known for wonkishness as a councilman, he often found himself at the center of controversy (and public battles with schools activist Helen Gym, herself now a candidate for council), especially in recent months.
Two actions highlight the controversial nature of his term so far — first, the SRC decision to terminate the contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, forcing the teachers to pay a higher portion of their salaries toward health care benefits so that schools could apply the difference to classroom materials. Second, last week’s decision by SRC to approve five new charter schools for the district — not enough for education reformers, but too many for public school activists.
George Jackson, a spokesman for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said his organization has no comment at this time.
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