New school board members retrieve art, renovate office space to be more open

With a nod to history, members create a more inviting space.

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

While other kids were, in his words, “acting normal,” Chris McGinley remembers spending many evenings during his childhood watching Philadelphia Board of Education meetings on TV.

“We had a family ritual of watching the meetings on Channel 12,” McGinley said. “My father [Dan] was speaking up for principals, or he was head of the principals’ union, so we always sat and watched.”

McGinley, who worked for the District for 18 years as a teacher, principal, and principal trainer, is now a member himself of the Philadelphia Board of Education, which took control of the District on July 1. And he has been leading an effort by the restored board to have the layout of their offices at District headquarters signal a new openness to the public, while also strongly linking to the past.

“We’re creating public space in the school board office that the office didn’t have under the SRC,” he said. The space, on the first floor of 440 N. Broad St., is meant to be more inviting to advocates and parents who often felt alienated and marginalized during the 17 years of governance by the state-dominated School Reform Commission.

One large room in the suite will be used for the meetings of the new nine-member board’s four committees. The room is already outfitted with rows of portable chairs for the public and will also be the site of a reception after the board’s inaugural meeting at 5 p.m. Monday, July 9.

The Board of Education’s new committee room. Photo by Darryl C. Murphy

“We want to open the doors, to have a meet-and-greet here to let them know they’re welcomed,” said Leticia Egea-Hinton, another of the board members, who helped in the planning and design to maximize the accessibility of the board’s space.

McGinley and Egea-Hinton said that the board will form four committees – policy; finance and facilities; student achievement and support; and partnerships and community engagement.

“There was nothing like this in the SRC office, no public access,” McGinley said. He said that only the new board president would have private space, while the eight other board members will share co-working space to facilitate and encourage collaboration and discussion.

Dominating one of the committee room’s walls are two 4-by-7-foot stained glass windows depicting the Philadelphia Art Museum and the Waterworks. For a time, they hung in the Board of Education’s former headquarters, the majestic Art Deco structure at 21st and Winter Streets, just off the Ben Franklin Parkway.

A stained glass window in the Board of Education’s new committee room, depicting the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Photo by Dale Mezzacappa)

“This is a little connection for me back to the history of the School District,” said McGinley, who also served on the SRC in its waning months. “Amazing things happened at that building. There was the huge protest about having black history taught in schools, about desegregation, about AIDS education,” among other events.

One of the legacies of the SRC’s tenure is the sale of that vintage 1930 building – now converted to upscale condos – and the purchase and renovation of 440 N. Broad, once part of the offices of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News and notable for the enormous concrete pillars that once held up the presses.

He led the effort to locate and install the windows – they were found in the basement of 440 – and is now on a mission to find other artwork and put it back on display. The collection of about 1,125 pieces once hung in schools, but was removed and stored away in the early days of the SRC under District CEO Paul Vallas.

Once thought to be valued at $30 million, most of the art disappeared from public view during the Vallas era. There was talk in 2013 of selling it to raise money, but that caused an outcry, and District officials said the value was probably closer to $2 million.

“There’s a limited amount of artwork from 21st and the Parkway we’re trying to secure, but we’re developing a policy now to get the other artwork moved back to the public domain,” McGinley said. “I personally thought it never should have been removed [from schools].”

He mentioned, among other pieces, a portrait of Charles Drew, the African American physician who made groundbreaking discoveries that allowed for blood storage and made transfusions possible. Works by African American artist Laura Wheeler Waring are also included. She donated some of her art to the District, and a school in Fairmount is named for her.

“I personally don’t think it ever should have been removed,” said McGinley. “It was bought by the community. It’s all gone. Why should it be gone?”

The doors to the board’s new committee room, which include stained-glass panels, originally led to the finance office on the ninth floor of the 21st Street building. And before it was the finance office, the ninth floor was the apartment of Add B. Anderson, who ran the District for decades (1936-62) as its managing director, outlasting many superintendents and overseeing the construction of dozens of school buildings.

Doing some detective work, McGinley and District staffers discovered that the windows had spent most of their existence in storage. They found a report done by Meredith Elementary School students in 1987 saying that the windows were made in 1929 for an “exhibition room” in the Board building, but never put in. The speculation was that once the building was in use, designers and officials decided that the windows would absorb all the light in the room.

It wasn’t until 55 years later – in 1984 – that “Ms. Sheila O’Leary discovered the windows in their original crates in a School District warehouse,” the Meredith report said. “The windows were slightly damaged and very dirty, but, with minor repairs and cleaning, they look like new.”

In 1987, the report said, the windows were displayed at the Philadelphia Flower Show, and sometime afterward were installed in an anteroom outside the huge auditorium at 21st Street where the Board of Education held its meetings.

McGinley is among the few people left at 440 who worked in that building under the old Board of Education.

His history with the District goes deep. His father was a longtime principal and led the principals’ union, then called the Philadelphia Association of School Administrators, from 1974 to 1998. Of his eight brothers and sisters, five went into education.

“Some are born with a silver spoon, and others with a piece of chalk,” he said. “I was born with a piece of chalk.”