By David DeKok
HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - Philadelphia's School Reform Commission (SRC) voted Thursday night to begin steps to dissolve itself, paving the way for a return to city control for the nation’s 8th largest school district after 16 years.
Three of the five commissioners voted in favor of dissolution, while one was opposed and one abstained.
If approved by the state Secretary of Education, which must happen by December 31st, the district would be turned back to a nine-member school board appointed by Philadelphia Mayor James Kenney with city council approval on July 1 of next year.
"It’s clear we have challenges moving forward,” said SRC chair Joyce Wilkerson, referring to a projected five-year deficit of $700 million. “I don’t think any of us believe they will be eliminated by a change of governance. But I support this.”
The district serves nearly 200,000 students, about a third of them in charter schools. It employs more than 8,600 teachers and has an annual budget of close to $3 billion.
The state of Pennsylvania took over the city schools in 2001 following a series of financial crises, but the action failed to solve the district’s woes. Since 2001, the SRC has closed schools, laid off teachers and administrators, cut expenses to the bone and borrowed to close deficits.
Commissioner Bill Green, who was the ‘no’ vote, said he appreciated the desire for local control, but said it was being done too quickly. He pointed to the projected five-year deficit and the need for city council to raise taxes to eliminate it. But he vowed to support the transition.
“Much like the [Philadelphia] Eagles’ chances, I really want to believe,” he said.
A raucous crowd cheered after the vote took place. Many residents addressed the SRC in favor of local control, while none spoke against.
“The premise that Philadelphians were incapable of governing our own schools was wrong,” said city Councilwoman Helen Gym. “The idea that solutions could be found in the free market was also wrong. They experimented on black and brown children.”
A spokesman for Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf said the Department of Education will begin its review of the School Reform Commission's dissolution request.
"While there is still more to do, (Pennsylvania) Governor Wolf has led the fight to restore the deep education cuts across Pennsylvania, especially to help struggling districts, including investing more than $100 million in Philadelphia public schools," the governor's spokesman said in a statement.
(Reporting By David DeKok; editing by Clive McKeef)