Op-ed: Philly deserves a more public school board structure

Instead of nine members all chosen by the mayor, why not let citizens and City Council have input?

Isaiah Thomas coaches schoolkids at Sankofa Freedom Academy in North Philly

Isaiah Thomas coaches schoolkids at Sankofa Freedom Academy in North Philly

Courtesy of Isaiah Thomas
Isaiah Thomas

This is a historic moment for the Philadelphia School District. On July 1, the state-imposed School Reform Commission (SRC) will be dissolved, and control of the district will finally be returned to the city after 16 years.

But there’s an unfortunate element to this much-awaited change: The school board is not being structured to give the public a real voice.

I commend the citizens who fought so hard for local control. Parents, children and many organizations across Philadelphia have been advocating for years to have a say in public education in this city. Since my City Council run in 2014, I also have been advocating for the end of the SRC and the return of local control. Now is our time.

But I cannot support a body that doesn’t give the public a strong, influential voice in choosing its members.

Recently, Mayor Kenney created a nominating panel to ultimately recommend 27 potential members for the nine-member school board. After receiving those initial recommendations, Kenney reached out for more — especially requesting parents of district school kids be included — and an additional 18 names were submitted. That helps, but still doesn’t address the main problem: the mayor gets the final say on the board’s makeup, with no outside input.

The Mayor intends to appoint the members this month, but it is not too late to consider alternative structures for the school board.

At this critical time, Philly has the chance to start fresh. Prior to the SRC, the board was also appointed by the mayor — Philadelphia’s citizens have never had the opportunity to directly choose the people responsible for the city’s public school system.

The importance of public involvement is why I have long advocated for a hybrid-member school board. Specifically, four members would be voted in by the public, three members would be appointed by the mayor, and two members would be appointed by City Council. The election of the four members could take place during the same cycle as City Controller and District Attorney, thus ensuring minimal administrative cost.

Although school board elections are not without their flaws, a solely mayoral-appointed board does not give concerned parents and citizens enough influence and control over the governance of our schools. The hybrid model would ensure such direct representation while achieving the benefits of an appointed board at the same time.

Our parents and communities deserve this much, especially after being deprived of local control for so long.

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