This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Members of Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission oversee a system with 20,000 employees that directly serves 150,000 students.
So a lot of people want their ear.
But what do the new commissioners think the public’s role should be in helping the SRC make decisions?
Philadelphia native Wendell Pritchett refers to the Quaker values he learned at Friends Select School in Center City.
"Public input – community making decisions – is a crucial aspect of Quakerism that was beaten into me," he said. "I take it very seriously."
Pritchett said he hopes the SRC can do more outreach and take advantage of groups that are already meeting around education issues.
He and fellow mayoral appointee Lorene Cary have started doing that, participating this November in the Philadelphia Education Fund’s monthly Education First Compact meeting.
As the new chair of the SRC, Pedro Ramos has already moved to make the commission’s public sessions more audience-friendly. A Philadelphia native, Ramos was president of the District’s last traditional school board. Public accountability is key, he said.
"I don’t think the SRC should be insular."
Sifting through layers of public input can be challenging, said the commission’s lone holdover, attorney Joseph Dworetzky.
"It’s like a quest sometimes as to whose voice is the authentic voice," he said. "Who speaks for the school? Is it the students? Is it their parents? Is it the teachers that work there? Is it the support staff?"
Dworetzky said his approach is to try to determine who is most affected on a particular issue.
"There are louder and softer voices, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the louder ones are correct and the softer ones should be ignored," he said.
During her first month as a commissioner, novelist and educator Lorene Cary said people on the street stopped her to talk about Philadelphia schools two or three times daily.
"When your child is in school – your grandchild, or the foster child you’ve taken in – you just want people to know your experience," said Cary.
Central to being on the SRC, she believes, is making sure that "no decision is made in the absence of that constant input of people’s experiences."
To help facilitate that, Cary said she will hold "office hours" at District headquarters at 440 North Broad Street on Monday evenings from 5 to 7 p.m.
The new commissioners have taken other steps to be more accountable. Public meetings are now televised and streamed online. Commissioners have committed to attending community meetings on the District’s facilities master plan.
And the SRC is currently considering new protocols such as logging all their interactions with elected officials – an idea that 77 percent of respondents supported in a recent Notebook online poll.
The commissioners hope their efforts will ultimately win over a skeptical public.
"If you do the work honestly and well with integrity, eventually, people’s trust will return," said Cary. "You can’t get trust faster than your behavior warrants."