Two School Reform Commission Members Resign

The departures give the Democratic mayor and governor a chance to remake the SRC.

School District of Philadelphia

Photo by Jeff Fusco

Two members of Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission, the appointed body that serves in place of an elected school board, have announced that they will resign.

Marjorie Neff, a former principal at Masterman High School who was appointed to the SRC by former Mayor Michael Nutter in 2014 and made chair of the commission by Gov. Tom Wolf last year, will resign effective November 3rd. Feather Houstoun, who was appointed by former governor Tom Corbett in 2011, will serve until October 14th. Their terms were set to expire in January. A third commissioner, Sylvia Simms, has a term that expires early next year as well.

The impending departure of a majority of commissioners will allow Gov. Wolf and Mayor Jim Kenney, both Democrats with ties to the American Federation of Teachers, to remake the SRC, which is responsible for making crucial decisions about teacher contracts, granting new school charters, and, recently, school closings.

Kenney thanked Neff and Houstoun in a statement Wednesday afternoon.

“I am currently having conversations with potential candidates to succeed Chair Neff and will make an appointment in the coming weeks,” Kenney said. “I believe that any future Commissioner must be fiercely dedicated to making the SRC a highly functioning governing body that strengthens our schools, and supports our students and educators.”

In 2013, the SRC voted to close 23 public schools amid an ongoing budget crisis. The next year, when former City Councilman Bill Green was serving as chair, it voted to cancel the teachers’ contract. That move was later deemed illegal by the state Supreme Court.

The resignations create a small opening for progressives who have felt that the SRC is too much a creature of Harrisburg conservatism. But it may raise the concerns of others who fear that the teachers’ union could gain too much leverage. At any rate, the terms were set to expire soon, so the resignations simply push the conversation forward. Elected officials reacted quickly on Wednesday, signaling that the resignations are likely to spur fresh debate about the makeup of the commission and whether the Philadelphia School District should be returned to local control.

“The commissioners’ decision to resign ahead of the expiration of their terms should be viewed as an opportunity to restart a conversation within our City and with leaders in Harrisburg about how to help the Commonwealth’s largest public school district make meaningful progress,” said Council President Darrell Clarke in an emailed statement. “I have long believed that this conversation must begin with consensus around the fact that state control of the School District of Philadelphia has been a failed experiment with severe consequences for all Pennsylvanians.”

Councilwoman Helen Gym, a public-school advocate who took office in January, also called for the return of local control of the school district.

“Short of meeting this fundamental goal, we need a group of responsible and responsive leaders who will uphold the public trust, reflect the diverse voices of public school communities, and establish a clear equity agenda for a school district that Harrisburg has neglected for far too long,” Gym said in a statement.

Kenney will appoint replacements for Neff and Simms, while Wolf will name Houstoun’s replacement. The two remaining commissioners are Green and Farah Jimenez, both appointed by Corbett. Their terms expire in 2019.

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