Groups allege ‘no transparency’ from mayor in filling Philadelphia school board vacancies

Mayor Jim Kenney speaks to reporters during a press conference at District headquarters.
Mayor Jim Kenney is facing allegations of no transparency in his attempt to fill three vacant seats on the city’s school board. (Darryl Murphy/The Notebook)

A coalition of education groups on Wednesday called for Mayor Jim Kenney to conduct an open selection process for three school board vacancies.

The Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, Our City Our Schools Coalition and the Philadelphia Black Student Alliance also alleged that by directing the nominating panel to meet in closed session the mayor violated the state’s Sunshine Act, which requires agencies to deliberate and take official action  in a public meeting.

“The mayor chooses his nominating panel with no public scrutiny,” said Alliance for Philadelphia co-founder and Coordinator Lisa Haver. “Now, the nominating panel is attempting to choose school board members without any public scrutiny. Why? Why is the mayor shutting us out?”

Students also voiced their displeasure about the process for filling the three board vacancies and the voting power of the board’s two student reps.

“As students we have great concerns about the lack of transparency and accountability in the nomination process,” said Youma Diabira, outreach coordinator for the Black Student Alliance. “We are here because that directly connects to our schools representing a diversity of perspectives and skills.”

Kenney launched the process to appoint three new members to the school board on Nov. 10. The schedule was delayed by vote counting in the presidential election. The city extended the application to last Sunday, three days after the original deadline. An additional 12 persons applied, according to a city spokesperson.

In a statement, Kenney said the city has received more than 60 applications and extended the deadline “to make sure all interested candidates have the opportunity to be considered.”

The city charter requires the nominating panel to vet candidates and submit to the mayor three names for each vacancy. The school board was revived in 2018, when the district returned to local control after 17 years under the state School Reform Commission.

Kenney has been criticized for the lack of public input into who serves on the nomination panel and the pool of candidates.

Dana Carter, a member of Racial Justice Organizing Committee Melanated Educators Collective and founder of Parents Organized for a Better School District of Philadelphia, aimed her frustration at Kenney and the Black members of the nominating panel.

“To the Black people on the nominating panel, I ask you, are you demanding transparency?” Carter asked. “Are you too afraid that you would lose your position for what is right?”

She advised committee members to quit, unless the process becomes transparent.

The school board, which is appointed by the mayor, has lost two members since the spring, with one soon leaving. Christopher McGinley, who was appointed in 2018, resigned in March. Ameen Akbar, who was appointed to the board in May, stepped down in October. And Lee Huang, who also was appointed in 2018, was reappointed in May and announced his resignation in November. Huang is still a legal member of the board and still attends meetings. He will remain until his replacement is sworn in.

The board includes President Joyce Wilkerson, and members Angela McIver, Julia Danzy, Mallory Fix Lopez, Maria McColgan, and Leticia Egea-Hinton.

Kenney’s 13-member nominating panel convened in November and is reviewing the applications. This panel is chaired by Wendell Pritchett, provost at the University of Pennsylvania. The nominating panel members are:

Bonnie Camarda, director of partnerships, The Salvation Army of Eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware.

Dan Fitzpatrick, president, Citizens Bank of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware

Peter Gonzales, president and CEO, Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians

Derren Mangum, director of Institutional Giving, Opera Philadelphia

Maura McCarthy, executive director, Fairmount Park Conservancy

Michael Mullins, secretary treasurer, UNITE HERE Local 274

Barbara Moore Williams, educational consultant

Stephanie Naidoff, board member, Fund for the School District of Philadelphia

Ivy Olesh, executive director, Playworks

Ellen Kaplan, citizen at large

Kimberly Pham, community activist and member of the National Council of Young Leaders

Sean Vereen, president, Steppingstone Scholars

A Dec. 7 letter signed by Haver and Our City Our Schools Coordinator Pep Marie called on Kenney to direct the panel to conduct all deliberations in public and to include interactive public testimony at its next convening.  The  panel did not allow public testimony at its Nov. 17 meeting, according to the organization’s leaders.

The letter also requested residential and financial information for all members of the nominating panel. The organizations contend that not all panel members are registered to vote in the city as required by the Philadelphia charter.

Parent Tonya Bah expressed her frustration on Wednesday with the selection process.

“Transparency and fidelity must be at the forefront of any selection involving those appointed to govern our most precious resource which is public education,” Bah said.  

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