The Drama of the SRC

Governor Wolf wants Marjorie Neff to be the SRC’s last chair. But then what?

The Drama of the SRC

Governor Wolf wants Marjorie Neff to be the SRC’s last chair. But then what?

Last Sunday, Governor Wolf replaced Bill Green as the School Reform Commission Chair with longtime public school educator and fellow SRC member, Marjorie Neff.

What does this tell us about the Governor’s SRC strategy, his broader perspective on public education and overall governance? I interpret the move through three lenses: politics, temperament, and policy.

Politically, the move has to do with having won an election. To the victor goes the spoils! Neff is more aligned with the Governor as shown by the recent charter vote, while Green is clearly more independent.

Bill Green was an independent voice on Philadelphia’s City Council and there were those who wondered what kind of a commission chair he would make, given his wild card reputation. Who can forget Mayor Nutter’s less than gracious reaction to Green’s appointment? Nutter viewed Green as the critic he could never please, much as Mayor Street once viewed then Councilman Nutter.

The fact is, Bill Green has worked well with other commission members, built a strong sense of team, and has done what a good chair does for his CEO, Bill Hite: Worked behind the scenes to support his efforts and take the inevitable political hits. He has been anything but the lone ranger some feared.

Governor Wolf is heavily aligned with the teacher’s unions who provided votes and financial support for him in the general election. They were furious at the Green-led SRC for attempting to impose new terms outside of the collective bargaining process; something the SRC believes it can do based on the law that formed it. The removal of Green can be interpreted as a down payment in the Governor’s political payback plan to the teacher’s union.

The official word from the SRC is that all is well. They will continue to work together as a team. They support each other and the move from Green to Neff does not really change very much. Unofficially I am not so sure.

A second interpretation has to do with temperament. This move is consistent with other recent actions by the Governor, who has taken bold moves to reverse appointments made by his predecessor. He wants to make it clear that he knows how to wield the power of an executive.

This kind of decisiveness can be a useful negotiating strategy. When people think you will act and do the unexpected, you gain some advantage, at least early in political relationships. As for the Green move, nobody saw it coming, especially two days before the Governor’s inaugural budget address.

If you want the SRC to be dissolved, the last thing you want is a politically-independent Chair with his own political relationships at the State Capitol. The Governor told us he favors abolishing the SRC during the campaign, in a primary that often sounded more like a school board election.

But like other sudden moves from the new Governor, it was politically awkward.

First, the communication. Governor Wolf convinced Marjorie Neff who then told Bill Green that he was about to lose his chairmanship. The other commissioners were similarly given the news by Marjorie Neff, but only after it had already dribbled out from Harrisburg.

The Governor’s people later said that Bill Green was hard to work with. Why they felt it necessary to say that is anybody’s guess. After all, Bill Green is from the same political party. A year ago he was viewed as a serious candidate for mayor. Who wants political enemies from the same party at this stage in the new administration?

It was also awkward because Green has done a very good job building relationships across the political aisle in Harrisburg. Why do this now when you need to forge coalition around the budget and school finance? (Besides, the Governor may not have the authority to do what he did. By statute, the Governor has the authority to appoint the Chair but it does not say explicitly if the governor has the authority to remove the chair, unless there is cause. The courts will decide.)
Which brings us to the policy interpretation. Governor Wolf did this because it is a step in the direction he wants to take: The replacement of the SRC with a locally controlled (and he hopes elected) school board.  If Governor Wolf has his way, Chairwoman Neff will be the last SRC chair.

And if you want the SRC to be dissolved, the last thing you want is a politically-independent Chair with his own political relationships at the State Capitol.

We know the Governor favors abolishing the SRC because he told us so during the campaign, as did all the other Democratic Party primary candidates. In a primary that often sounded more like a school board election, the SRC, charter schools, and testing were all denounced repeatedly.

Of course, the School Reform Commission has always been controversial.  Established in December 2001 based on 1998 legislation, it took away local control and replaced the existing School District board with a 5-member commission, with three appointments from the Governor and two from the Mayor.

The SRC was always viewed as a temporary solution, a transitional body. When it would end and what comes next are at issue today.

The governance structure of the SRC has always been untenable. Five appointed volunteers who spend endless hours without compensation, have limited staff support, and have governance responsibility for a budget close to $3 billion.

The Philadelphia School District budget is the third largest public sector budget in Pennsylvania after the state budget itself and the budget for the city of Philadelphia. The budget is twice that of the entire city of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County combined.

At the root of the problem is a mismatch between governance capacity and governance responsibility. And that is not a knock on the SRC members, particularly over the past four years from Pedro Ramos’ chairmanship to that of Bill Green.

They have worked tirelessly for no pay and in face of an avalanche of financial crises and public opprobrium. A bigger question might be why any of them stick around in such a no win position.

There are two routes to ending the SRC if that is indeed where we are going.  The first is legislative. The legislature that created the SRC can abolish it. The problem is that the Republicans, who support the SRC, control the legislature. Any move to end the SRC through legislation would have to be part of a larger education compromise.

The second route is self-termination. If the SRC members vote to abolish the Commission and the Secretary of Education agrees, then the SRC would end. While it would be hard to count those votes today, persuasion and fatigue may eventually come into play.

So what if the SRC does dissolve? There would likely be a transition plan as part of the dissolution and then we would return to a Mayoral-appointed school board, which is what preceded the SRC. To do otherwise would require a charter change. That too is possible but it will take some time.

But it is not clear what this solves, if anything. The SRC is an easy target because of its visibility, but prior to 2001 the schools were also in bad shape. And do we really want to say goodbye to a structural partnership with the state, which is responsible for close to half the budget?

You can make the case that having the state on the line for performance is a good thing. Others counter that by saying that the state constitution makes the state accountable for school funding anyway.

Even if we do go back to local control, a good number of anti-SRC voices are not so sure about an elected board. That tells you something about our confidence in Philadelphia’s City Council and in the abysmal voter turnouts in local elections.

The SRC is an easy target because of its visibility, but prior to 2001 the schools were also in bad shape. Do we really want to say goodbye to a structural partnership with the state, which is responsible for close to half the budget?

Philadelphia has not had a locally-elected school board since 1905, when early reformers centralized control in reaction to a system of ward leader cronyism that hobbled the city’s public schools.

How this all plays out will ultimately be linked to the ability of the Governor to sell his budget and priorities. If he is successful then he will have that much more leverage. Politics works that way; success builds momentum and the pieces begin to fall in place.

But we are still at the early stage. Governor Wolf’s budget presentation was dramatic in its breadth. He wants increased spending on education and he knows that is a popular sentiment.

But to accomplish that he is seeking a significant change in our tax structure in virtually every revenue category: sales tax, property taxes, capital and franchise taxes, corporate net profits tax, personal income, and the newly proposed gas extraction tax. He will not have an easy time with several of these proposals. They will not all be popular.

Meanwhile, he is not addressing in a substantive way two of the Republican legislature’s favored issues: pension fund reform and liquor store privatization. Instead, the Governor wants to borrow $3 billion in pension obligation bonds and service the debt with revenue that will come from what he calls liquor store modernization — a policy connection that can only be cooked up in Harrisburg.

Nor does there seem to be much to his education proposals outside of funding. Perhaps that will change as we get further into the administration. Whether Chairwoman Neff is the last SRC chair is now linked to the Governor’s ability to sell his overall vision and rack up some political victories. Because momentum matters in politics.

Photo: Austinxc04

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