Meet the new boss: Philly school board picks leaders after clash over nominees

A collage of portraits of eight people. Four people on the top row and four people on the bottom row.
Pictured are the members of the new Philadelphia Board of Education. Top row, from left to right: Sarah-Ashley Andrews, Crystal Cubbage, Cheryl Harper, and Whitney Jones. Bottom row, from left to right: ChauWing Lam, Wanda Novalés, Joan Stern, and Reginald Streater. Streater is the new board's president, while Novalés is the vice president. (Courtesy images)

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After a campaign to oust him from the Philadelphia Board of Education failed, Reginald Streater was unanimously reelected president of the body on Thursday.

At their first meeting as a new board, members also made a surprising decision by electing first-time board member Wanda Novalés to be vice president. The position was contested and required the board to vote twice. Members Sarah-Ashley Andrews and ChauWing Lam were also nominated but did not garner enough votes.

“I have no written comments as I didn’t think this was going to happen,” Novalés said after she was elected. “But I am so excited to serve the students.”

Speaking before the vote, Streater hinted at the potential for holding board “office hours” and “reimagining” meetings in the future, as well as focusing on “our facilitation of tough and public conversations that we must have.”

Philadelphia’s school board nomination process became Mayor Cherelle Parker’s first big political struggle with the City Council. Although the council approved Parker’s eight other school board nominees, several members strongly opposed Joyce Wilkerson’s nomination. Their reasons for doing so remained relatively vague, but allegations of racial bias in the charter school authorizing process came up during a tense council hearing on Parker’s nominees.

Education Committee Chair Isaiah Thomas also indicated a desire to seek accountability for the actions of earlier iterations of the board and its predecessor, the School Reform Commission.

Wilkerson is the longest serving board member and has been both board president and chair of the School Reform Commission.

Ultimately, a behind-the-scenes campaign to oust Wilkerson and Streater fizzled. After Wilkerson’s nomination stalled for several days, Parker announced that she was asking Wilkerson to remain on the board anyway — without the council’s consent. Wilkerson agreed to do so. In response, Thomas has called for hearings to “explore possible reforms to the school board nomination, confirmation, and governance processes.”

All eyes will be on this new board in the coming months, and special attention will undoubtedly be paid to their votes on whether to approve applications for new charter schools, or proposed charter expansions.

Novalés, the new VP, founded Philadelphia’s Pan American Charter School.

With budget negotiations ongoing in the City Council and in the state capitol, the school district’s financial position is also being scrutinized by councilmembers and legislators. Several state lawmakers on Tuesday signaled their support for Gov. Josh Shapiro’s proposed increases in education funding that would benefit Philadelphia schools. But until the budget process is settled, those increases are far from secure.

One concrete piece of good news for the district came on Wednesday, when the credit ratings agency Fitch Ratings upgraded the district’s outlook. But Fitch cautioned that the district’s enrollment has been “adversely impacted” by a soaring number of students switching to charter schools and cyber charter schools over the past decade.

“This shift has led to an increase in spending to fund charter schools which accounts for a significant portion of the district’s spending,” representatives from the credit ratings agency wrote in their explanation for the rating change. “These charter school payments pose a significant limitation on the district’s ability to manage its expenses.”

Former board member Mallory Fix-Lopez wished the new members well and cautioned the board Thursday to “please be mindful of even the appearance of improprieties” because of its negative impact on the district’s primary mission and its students. She also issued a warning.

“You are in for a wild ride,” Fix-Lopez said.

The new board’s first action meeting will be on May 30.

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

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