Pitching local control of Philadelphia's schools as the linchpin to the city's future, Mayor Kenney on Thursday called for the School Reform Commission to disband itself in favor of a board whose members he will choose.
Seizing back governance of the schools will come with a hefty price tag. Kenney and City Council President Darrell L. Clarke said they would need to cover the Philadelphia School District's looming deficit — $103 million next school year, $1 billion over five years — though they declined to say exactly how.
"Again and again, we've told the people of Philadelphia that the state of their schools are someone else's responsibility," Kenney told a supportive audience that packed Council chambers. "That ends today. When the SRC dissolves itself, and we return to a school board appointed by the mayor, you can hold me and future mayors accountable for the success or failure of our schools."
The decision to dismantle the commission after 16 years could have a profound impact beyond the district's schools — stirring debate and discussion about taxes and funding across city departments, and shaping the political fortunes of the mayor, Council, and possibly even the new school board members.
State Secretary of Education Pedro A. Rivera, an appointee of Gov. Wolf — who supports local control — must certify the dissolution by Dec. 31. A 13-member nominating panel will then form to make recommendations to the mayor for a nine-member school board, as per the City Charter.
The SRC would cease to exist June 30, 2018; officials said the board would be named by March to have time to come up to speed on district operations.
Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell on Thursday introduced legislation that would call for a charter change giving Council approval power over school board members, but the earliest city voters could consider that change is May.
Neither Kenney nor Clarke would say where the new money for city schools would come from, but they were clear that waiting for answers and huge infusions of cash from Harrisburg would not work.
"Council is not adverse to raising taxes for education," Clarke said at a news conference, noting that it has done so in recent years. But he declined to reveal specifics.
"I think that there could be some alternatives besides raising real estate taxes," Councilwoman Cindy Bass said after the Council news conference. "I'm going to explore those, and I hope to offer something at some point."
Kenney warned that "there will be no easy solutions" to funding schools. But, he said, the alternative is worse.
"If we do not provide our children the resources they need, the cycle of budget cuts and instability which have hindered our students' success for decades will continue," he said. "And Philadelphia will slowly but surely fail."
The state took control of the district in 2001 with agreement from the city, after years of financial struggles and complaints about the lack of state funding. Despite state oversight and additional state funding in the early years, problems have persisted.
In the new world order, there will be much closer collaboration between city and schools, Kenney said.
"I would like to see this district act like a department of the city, so that we can help with supplemental services," the mayor said in an interview with the Inquirer and Daily News Editorial Boards. That would mean school buildings more open to the community, and city workers providing more services inside them, like a newly designed plan to put social workers on the city's payroll inside 22 schools.
Kenney had strong praise for William R. Hite Jr., the school superintendent, and said he wanted Hite to stay in Philadelphia. He said he would continue initiatives launched under Hite: a capital improvement program to upgrade dilapidated buildings, ninth-grade academies, expanded counseling, more reading coaches, and better career and technology programs.
Hite, in a statement, said his priorities remained the same.
"I am optimistic and excited about the future of the School District of Philadelphia and about our work to improve academic outcomes," he said.
Kenney's move drew swift praise from Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, who criticized the SRC as "a long, failed experiment in state control of public schools."
"We also recognize that local control, by itself, is no solution for the deep poverty that creates obstacles for so many of our schoolchildren," Jordan said in a statement. "It also does not address the chronic underfunding of our public schools."
Kenney was also clear about the role of charters, saying he hoped the governance shift would end "the unhealthy debate" between advocates of traditional public and charter schools. There are 200,000 children in public schools in the city — 130,000 in traditional district schools, and nearly 70,000 in charters.
"I am responsible to every one of those children, no matter the type of school they attend," Kenney said. "And I will be judged by the voters on the number of high-performing schools in every neighborhood, not whether those schools are district or public charters."
State Sen. Anthony H. Williams (D., Phila.), a charter proponent, said the timing was right for the city to again own its schools. He called Kenney's speech "possibly one of the most politically courageous I've ever heard of any public official."
State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.) called Kenney's move "a bold plan" and said Pennsylvania had "dropped the ball dramatically on generations of Philadelphia schoolchildren and low-income school districts across Pennsylvania."
SRC member Bill Green said he was not optimistic that the new governance structure would be successful. He said he was not sure how he would vote on the dissolution question.
"In the long run, if it were going to be a mayor-appointed board without interference from Council, I think that accountability would be important; unfortunately, that's not what's being proposed," said Green, a former Council member. "I think with all of those cooks in the kitchen, we're going to lose accountability rather than have accountability."
Stephen Miskin, a spokesman for House Republicans, said that "it is refreshing to hear the mayor wants to take full financial and academic responsibility for all the public schools in Philadelphia," but he said parents had reason to worry about the fate of charters.
Still, Kenney said, successful schools of all type are essential.
"If we don't take responsibility for the fate of our schools, then we will continue to relegate generations of Philadelphia's families to poverty," the mayor said. "I am not willing to do that. We must choose to meet this moment and become the masters of our own destiny."