Philadelphia mayor plans to go over City Council’s head, put contested nominee on school board

Philadelphia's City Council will not move forward with longtime Board of Education member Joyce Wilkerson’s reappointment. But Mayor Cherelle Parker wants to go over their heads and reappoint her anyway. The dispute could ultimately have a major impact on education policy. (Dale Mezzacappa / Chalkbeat)

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A power struggle has erupted in Philadelphia between Mayor Cherelle Parker and City Council leadership that could have serious implications for Parker and impact one of the country’s largest school districts.

The person at the center of that tug of war is longtime Board of Education member Joyce Wilkerson. After a public back-and-forth, the City Council voted Monday to pull Wilkerson’s nomination to the school board from its agenda for the second time. Council President Kenyatta Johnson said Wilkerson still did not have the votes to be confirmed.

But Parker is not backing down. She sent a letter to Wilkerson Monday asking her to stay on until a new appointment is made, which Wilkerson has agreed to do. The rest of Parker’s school board nominees were approved by the council April 19 and are due to take their seats Wednesday.

It’s not entirely clear what effect the dispute over Wilkerson will have on the board and the school district. But during a hearing on the nominees, several councilmembers pressed them about their views on charter schools in the city, and indicated that they would like to see the school board approve more charters, especially those with Black leadership. The board hasn’t approved a new charter school since 2018.

If the relationship between Parker and the council deteriorates over Wilkerson’s fate, it could have significant consequences for the school’s budget and the council’s support for long-term education plans from both the board and Parker, who has proposed year-round school for the city’s students.

Wilkerson is the longest serving member of the board, and served as its president from 2018, when the district shifted from state to local control, until 2022. Before that, she spent two years as the chair of the School Reform Commission that ran the district after the state took it over.

A smiling Wilkerson read Parker’s letter to reporters after the vote. The letter called her a “laudable” public official during her time on the board.

A separate statement from Parker’s office confirmed that she had asked Wilkerson to continue serving past Tuesday.

The mayor’s office said it has a legal opinion that spells out her authority to keep Wilkerson on the board, but did not release it. The City Charter requires the City Council’s “advice and consent” on board appointees.

And the council — specifically Johnson and Education Committee Chair Isaiah Thomas — appears to be signaling that the body will not be a rubber stamp for Parker’s administration.

Some officials don’t view nominee as ‘beloved friend’

Various councilmembers have told Chalkbeat they don’t have passionate positions on Wilkerson either way, but are voting with Johnson and Thomas against the backdrop of important budgetary negotiations.

Despite the role charter schools played during the hearing on Parker’s school board nominees, Councilmember Kendra Brooks denied that her concerns about Wilkerson stemmed from the board’s unwillingness to approve new charters or its approach to charters in general.

“I’ve never been a supporter of charters, so the notion that this is about charters, I push back against,” said Brooks in an interview. She started her public career as an education activist fighting for adequate resources for her neighborhood schools, among other causes, and said she would have voted no on Wilkerson’s nomination: “The years I’ve been doing this education work, Joyce was never our beloved friend.”

Pressed further, Brooks said that if Wilkerson’s presence on the board “is the only thing saving the state of education in Philadelphia, we are doomed.”

Thomas also issued a statement Monday saying he does not support Wilkerson “because our schools have been inadequate under her leadership.”

“This is bigger than one person. This is about the need for change and doing what’s best for our children and families,” Thomas wrote.

Johnson has repeatedly rebuffed questions from reporters about the reasons for the opposition to Wilkerson’s nomination. Critics of the council’s move have noted that Dawn Chavous, who is married to Johnson, also serves as spokesperson for the African American Charter Coalition, which first leveled the allegations of racial bias against the school board regarding Black-led charters.

Chavous did not respond to an email from Chalkbeat on Monday.

Before calling for a vote to remove Wilkerson’s nomination from the agenda, Johnson said that members had heard from many members of the public, including but not limited to charter school supporters, expressing concerns about Wilkerson.

“I will not make those concerns public out of respect for Ms. Wilkerson,” he said.

Councilmembers, by a voice vote, also rejected a motion to make their positions public through a roll call.

Curtis Jones was the only councilmember besides Johnson to speak publicly Monday about the situation and he expressed misgivings about the process by which Wilkerson’s nomination was being held up.

“We are barely past 100 days,” Jones said, referring to Parker’s time in office. “And we’re not allowing the mayor to have the benefit of the doubt.”

“I trust my mayor and trust my leadership,” Jones added. “If you’re asking her to cook the meal, she should be allowed to buy the groceries.”

For her part, Wilkerson said she is “delighted” to have Parker’s support and to remain a member of the board.

“When Mayor Parker announced my nomination, one of the things we talked about is the significance of continuity,” Wilkerson said.

Legality of mayor’s move is in question

Still in question is whether Council will challenge the legality of Parker’s move.

The Home Rule Charter states the nine members of the board “shall be appointed by the Mayor, with the advice and consent of a majority of all the members of the Council after public hearing.”

Parker’s Deputy Chief Education Officer Sharon Ward said the mayor interprets the charter to say Wilkerson can continue to serve until someone is named to replace her, since the council removed her nomination from the agenda but did not reject it. Parker could also choose to indefinitely delay nominating someone else, perpetuating Wilkerson’s term.

Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, an attorney with the Public Interest Law Center, said in an interview Monday there has to be a mechanism by which governmental bodies like the Board of Education can continue to function even in the absence of a traditional confirmation process. Parker is betting her push for Wilkerson to remain on the board would fall under that mechanism, he said.

Philadelphia is the only district in Pennsylvania with an appointed, not elected, school board. The City Council voted in 2018 to amend the City Charter to require the council’s advice and consent for school board nominees.

Donna Cooper, a former aide to Ed Rendell when he was Philadelphia mayor and governor and now executive director of the advocacy group Children First, came to the Council’s chamber to support Wilkerson and later said in a statement: “Clearly the mayor knows how to play chess.”

The newly constituted school board’s first meeting about its long-term goals and strategy is scheduled for May 9, and their first action meeting as a voting body is May 30.


Carly Sitrin is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Philadelphia. Contact Carly at csitrin@chalkbeat.org.

Dale Mezzacappa is a senior writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. Contact Dale at dmezzacappa@chalkbeat.org.

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