In its first session of 2018, Philadelphia City Council made it clear that the legislative body is in no rush to resolve controversial legislation leftover from last year.
An affordable housing bill from last year, which had caused a stir in the development community, was not brought up for a vote. Nor were two key pieces of legislation related to the return of public schools to local control after years of state supervision.
Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, a co-sponsor of two pieces of legislation that would alter the city’s Home Rule Charter in order to create a new process for appointing members to a revived local school board, sought to delay a final vote on both. Mayor Jim Kenney has already created a 13-member nominating panel to appoint the city’s first locally controlled school board since the year 2000, but the bills in question would enshrine a new appointment process going forward.
Blackwell, the chair of the City Council Education Committee, described a wide range of constituent concerns about the current transition process and pending legislation that led to her decision to hold off on a vote.
“I’ve got these charter school people in my office all the time talking about their schools getting shut down. I have people in my office saying they wanted the resolution held because they had questions about the application and how people were being chosen,” Blackwell said. “Everybody is upset, everyone is looking for changes.”
Blackwell added that she also intended to make passage of the legislation, which will eventually require voter approval, contingent on Kenney's ability to allay “community concerns” about his first round of appointments.
Those concerns appear to be myriad. For starters, Blackwell said, 31 charter schools – including Mastery, Boys Latin, Global Leadership, Russell Byers and KIPP – have planned a press conference at City Hall next Tuesday to elucidate their concerns about the abolition of the state-created School Reform Commission and transitional legislation in council.
“The event on Tuesday is sponsored by charter organizations. We wanted to get together to unite and call for lawmakers to sign a call to action,” said Mastery spokesperson Rae Oglesby, declining to go into greater detail.
Council staff said that charter schools have expressed fears that the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, typically hostile to charter expansion, would have too much sway in the appointment process for a local school board.
“The SRC was designed to be a pro-charter entity,” one staffer said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “The SRC was a kind of political protection for charters, and they’re really responding to that. They have their whole livelihood on the line through future school board votes.”
Separately, state Rep. Curtis Thomas, whose district includes North Philadelphia, dispatched a letter to council offices outlining a litany of concerns, including the purported lack of representation for “the Philadelphia Black Clergy or African-American community organization(s)” on the transition panel.
In the letter, Thomas also blasted a lack of transparency within the current transitional nomination panel, even dispatching a former school principal to articulate these concerns during council’s public comment period.
Even traditional public school advocates, who had long sought to eliminate the SRC, expressed concerns about the transition process. Lisa Haver, of the Alliance For Philadelphia Public Schools, said her group had authored a recent op-ed expressing similar dissatisfaction with the lack of transparency within the nominating panel and issued a call for a directly elected school board.
“We’re calling for some transparency because there’s none right now. It’s a whole question of, why is the mayor being so secretive,” said Haver. “If someone ran a charter school that closed and they’re applying to be on the school board, I want to know about that. I think people who don’t believe in traditional public schools shouldn’t be on the new school board. And we really believe we should have a locally elected school board like every other county.”
One City Council staffer described the current situation as “a mess.” Others said that the Mayor’s Office and City Council were not on the same page regarding a timeline for the creation of the new local school board.
Kenney has said he hopes to appoint the first board before the summer and have legislation in place for the appointment of future members by the fall. Councilmembers like Blackwell, however, did not express a similar feeling of urgency.
“I support local control...but I think we need to deal with issues first,” Blackwell said.
A spokesman for the mayor, who is currently out of town, directed questions about the legislation back to council.
"We defer to Council on their timeline for legislation,” said spokesperson Mike Dunn. “Our commitment from the beginning has been to ensuring a smooth transition of governance for the District."