Philly Doesn’t Need An Elected School Board

There's a good reason the School Reform Commission was created

The poor oversight of former Philadelphia schools chief Arlene Ackerman has sparked efforts in Harrisburg to transform the School Reform Commission into an elected school board. While the goal may be laudable, an elected school board will not guarantee better oversight or accountability.

The problem with the SRC rests in the poor quality of its five members, who are appointed by the mayor and governor. Having an elected school board will not prevent hacks and stiffs from getting the job. (See City Council, the City Commission, the Sheriff and the Register of Wills, which are all elected.) If anything, an elected school board may ratchet up the politics.

To be clear, this in no way is a defense of the SRC. To be sure, the current group is a pathetic bunch of political puppets who abdicated their responsibility to the children, parents and taxpayers of the Philadelphia School District. They provided little to no oversight of Ackerman’s incompetent management of the school district, especially in regards to its finances and divisive leadership.

Even worse, as the district’s financial problems mounted, evidence of test cheating erupted and Ackerman’s tyrannical leadership became impossible to ignore, the SRC extended her contract. (That’s on top of the bonus the SRC awarded Ackerman the previous year after she mismanaged the racial riot at South Philadelphia High.) The SRC’s decision to extend Ackerman’s contract this spring only increased the nearly $1 million cost it took to get rid of her months later. The SRC’s complete mishandling of the Ackerman era was a costly embarrassment that resulted in Mayor Nutter pushing through a property tax hike. The SRC should be replaced—now.

There is no time to go through the legislative process of changing the SRC system and electing a school board. The district needs fixing now. In fact, the proposal to create a nine-member elected school board will not solve the district’s problems. There is a reason the state stepped in 10 years ago and took control of the district, which led to the creation of the SRC: The locally controlled school district had failed then, running up a big deficit and poor performance by students.

Considering the state provides the bulk of the money to run the school district, it may think twice about relinquishing full control to the city. An elected school board may sound good at first blush, but it may also complicate matters. Having members represent nine districts may make it difficult to make citywide decisions regarding where to invest resources, the awarding of contracts, the hiring of teachers, the opening and closing of schools. Think Council prerogative.

There is no guarantee those who run and get elected will know anything about education or overseeing a complex $3 billion organization that employs thousands. We already have a City Council dominated by .210 hitters. We don’t need a school district run by ward leaders, committee members and other party lackeys.

Some have argued the mayor should have full control of the school district. In theory that makes sense, but Mayor Nutter can barely run City Hall. He was a good city councilman, but often appears in over his head as mayor.

Nutter’s been ineffective when it comes to negotiating with the city unions or getting City Council to support his agenda, which has been dominated by annual tax hikes. To think the mayor is somehow going to fix the schools is magical thinking. Nutter puts on a good public face, but peek behind the curtain and he looks more like the Wizard of Oz.

More to the point, the mayor already has strong control over the SRC. (He apparently led the effort to oust Ackerman after she humiliated him, so it’s not like he has no influence.) In fact, the mayor appoints two SRC members and the governor appoints three. One member, Denise Armbrister, is married to Nutter’s former chief of staff. Like the other SRC members, she has been mostly missing in action.

SRC chairman Robert Archie is a Nutter appointee. Archie has been an abysmal failure as the SRC’s leader. Archie is Nutter’s guy. With that track record, who wants the mayor to have more control over the school district?

To be sure, the current system isn’t perfect. But neither is an elected school board or one controlled by the mayor. The solution rests in a school board led by smart, independent, nonpolitical members who put the interests of children, parents and taxpayers first.

Paul Davies spent 25 years in the newspaper business, including stops at the Daily News, the Inquirer and the Wall Street Journal. He can be reached at [email protected]