Willing to listen

The new-look School Reform Commission says it wants to win the public's trust.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

For the first time in recent memory, Patrice Berrian-Marrujo felt that somebody in power was listening to her.

A classroom assistant for students with severe emotional problems at Levering Elementary in Roxborough, Berrian-Marrujo describes herself as a "low-level employee" in the School District of Philadelphia.

But she is passionate about her work, and she is concerned about what the District’s recent proposal to close Levering will mean for her students. So on a crisp November Saturday, she joined roughly 100 other parents, students, and teachers at a community meeting at Roxborough High School to discuss the District’s plans.

To her surprise, a member of Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission was not only there, but spoke publicly.

"You live this, so your suggestions mean an enormous amount," Commissioner Lorene Cary told the crowd, many of whom voiced concerns about the District’s school closings plan. "We are here as an SRC to encourage the District to listen."

After the meeting ended, Berrian-Marrujo approached the commissioner, tears in her eyes.

"When you spoke, I felt sincerity," she told Cary, a celebrated local author who runs a community-based arts organization. "I felt that you really are going to take this into consideration."

If Berrian-Marrujo’s hopes are realized, it would represent a sea change for the beleaguered SRC.

Local advocates have long criticized the District’s governing board for being unresponsive to the public. Discontent grew during the first nine months of this year, when the commission endured a disastrous stretch marked by missteps and scandal.

This September, in the wake of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s $900,000 buyout, the criticism reached a crescendo. The city’s chief integrity officer issued a report blasting former SRC Chair Robert Archie for his involvement in backroom dealing on a potentially lucrative charter contract. Mayor Michael Nutter led an effort to clean house.

In the space of a month, Archie and two other commissioners resigned. Four new members – Cary, Rutgers-Camden Chancellor Wendell Pritchett, lawyer Pedro Ramos, and former William Penn Foundation President Feather Houstoun – are joining lone holdover Joseph Dworetzky on the rebuilt SRC.

The new commissioners say they are committed to restoring public confidence in the SRC’s integrity and decision-making.

Many remain skeptical.

Cary understands.

"You just have to sit with the very uncomfortable fact that folks don’t trust you, and behave well anyway," she said.

Even if times were good, serving on the SRC would be a daunting responsibility.

Created when the state took over the Philadelphia school system in late 2001, the five-member, city-state governing board oversees the District’s nearly $3 billion budget – the third-largest pot of public money in the state. Its members are volunteers, but in these unpaid second jobs they are asked to make decisions that will affect hundreds of thousands of families.

And these are not good times.

At the top of a long list of challenges is the District’s disastrous budget situation. The SRC must still approve painful measures to finish closing a stunning $629 million hole for this year, then quickly turn around and prepare for what could be another large shortfall next year.

It’s no surprise, then, that Pritchett says he has been asked the same question a hundred times since joining the commission in September.

Why take the job?

"The first person to ask was my wife," said the 46-year-old Philadelphia native. "She was worried about the perceptions of the SRC and about the difficult decisions that were going to need to be made."

Interacting with the public

No issue will be tougher for the SRC to navigate than the District’s facilities master plan.

On November 2, after a year of development, District staff recommended that the commission approve a plan to close nine schools over the next three years.

Supporters at many of the targeted schools, including Levering, are angry. But some of the city’s political and business leaders expected a more ambitious list of closings.

It’s exactly the kind of no-win situation that Pritchett’s wife was concerned about. But he says it’s also an opportunity.

"We’re looking at [the facilities master plan] as a model, a way of thinking about how we interact with the public and with stakeholders," said Pritchett.

Already, the SRC has started to make noticeable changes.

Cary’s presence at the community meeting in Roxborough will not be an isolated event, say the commissioners. In a letter from the SRC directly to parents, the commissioners say they will "attend as many meetings as possible" and promise to listen to "families’ concerns, thoughts, and suggestions about their own neighborhoods."

New SRC chair Pedro Ramos wasted no time in shifting how the SRC conducts its business.

Ramos promptly announced he intends to create new committees on topics like finances, safety, charter schools, and higher education. Non-commissioners may be invited to join.

The commissioners have been willingly talking with the media – a sharp departure from the practice of former Chairman Archie, who once infamously spurned an interviewer with the line, "I’m a volunteer. … I don’t need to do this."

And perhaps most strikingly, the new chair allowed people in the audience to question District staff and guest researchers after presentations made during the commission’s public meeting on November 16.

"Thank you for taking questions from the audience," retired teacher Lisa Haver, a regular at the SRC’s open sessions, told Ramos. "I’ve been coming to these things for a long time, and that’s never happened."

Tough tests ahead

Most of the changes made by the SRC thus far have been aimed at demonstrating greater openness.

But for many, the real test of the new-look SRC will be its ability to make the District actually work better, even on tough issues like school closings.

Roxborough resident Lisa Corbin is a member of both the Home and School Association and the School Advisory Council at her child’s school, Cook-Wissahickon Elementary.

Like Patrice Berrian-Marrujo, Corbin attended the Saturday morning community meeting about the District’s school closing recommendations. While there, she also had a warm personal interaction with Commissioner Cary.

But afterwards, she, like most of the others in attendance, was primarily concerned with the details of the District’s proposal.

If Levering is closed, she wondered, how many displaced students will be reassigned to her child’s already crowded school?

Other parents wondered how Head Start programs will be impacted and how the District will ensure safe commutes for relocated students in the winter, when Roxborough’s hilly streets sometimes lose bus service.

"I don’t believe that this plan has been thought through in terms of the impact it’s going to have on families," a dissatisfied Corbin concluded.

In addition, said Corbin, the lack of clear answers on the nuts and bolts of how the plan will work speaks to a more fundamental flaw: District staff made their school closing recommendations before soliciting input from those who know the schools and neighborhood most intimately.

"Parents have been instrumental in making [Cook-Wissahickon] what it is now," said Corbin. "We could have given them this feedback before, but they didn’t come to us."

So far, the commissioners have given little public indication that they share Corbin’s concerns about the District’s process for developing its facilities recommendations. Dworetzky, in fact, played a key role in shaping that process through his work on the SRC’s operations committee.

And though people on the ground worry about the District’s capacity to adequately manage even the nine closings they have recommended, three of the commissioners – Dworetzky, Pritchett, and Ramos – have publicly indicated they think the District’s plan should go further.

On this issue, anyway, the commissioners will have to balance their desire to move decisively with their commitment to be more responsive to community concerns.

"Taking this job was going to mean making difficult decisions," said Pritchett. "It just happens that the facilities master plan is the first one."