Published Online: February 5, 1997

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2 Proposals Would Revamp How Phila. Controls Its Schools

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Two state legislators from Philadelphia caused a stir in Pennsylvania political and educational circles last week when they unveiled separate proposals for major changes in the way the city governs its schools.

One plan, advanced by the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate appropriations committee, would splinter the 215,000-student system into an undetermined number of independent districts.

The other, put forward by the ranking Democrat on the House appropriations panel, would give both the mayor and governor new oversight powers while establishing elected local councils at each of Philadelphia's 257 schools.

It is uncertain how either idea will fare in the Republican-dominated legislature, but some influential GOP lawmakers welcomed the proposals as a useful starting point. Republican Gov. Tom Ridge, who is in the midst of a court battle with Philadelphia over state aid to the schools, also expressed willingness to enter into discussions on restructuring the district.

"It's an important beginning," said Stephen Drachler, an aide to House Majority Leader John M. Perzel of Philadelphia. "The status quo is obviously not good enough."

Philadelphia Superintendent David W. Hornbeck and his aides stressed last week that the proposals were too sketchy to warrant in-depth comment. But they also emphasized that Mr. Hornbeck's own reform agenda, known as Children Achieving, shares both plans' underlying goal of decentralizing decisionmaking.

Of the two, the plan least palatable to district leaders is clearly the breakup idea being developed by Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, who represents South Philadelphia.

Breakup Plan Taking Shape

Mr. Fumo unexpectedly sent reporters scurrying last week when he disclosed at a press luncheon that his staff was drafting a plan to dissolve the district.

Aides to the lawmaker said he had no firm proposal on paper, and that Mr. Fumo did not expect to be ready to introduce the plan as legislation for about six months. But its thrust would be to divide the system into anywhere from a handful to a dozen or more districts, each with an elected school board and independent taxing authority.

"The school district is too large and too distant from the local neighborhoods," said Gary J. Tuma, a spokesman for Mr. Fumo. "There is a sense that people don't have control over their neighborhood schools."

David Atkinson, an aide to Senate President Pro Tem Robert C. Jubelirer, predicted that Mr. Fumo's idea would appeal to Republican lawmakers, many of whom are fed up with what they perceive as the district's relentless requests for money and its chronic failure to produce acceptable results. And he said Mr. Fumo's personal stature would work in his favor, despite his status as a member of the minority party.

"The fact that it's Vince Fumo talking about it is something everyone should take into account because he's a very powerful, aggressive lawmaker," Mr. Atkinson said.

New Board Proposed

While Mr. Fumo's plan would essentially send a wrecking ball into the district's central office, the plan by his sometime political rival, Rep. Dwight Evans, would take a less dramatic approach.

Mr. Evans' plan would create a five-member "council of accountability" to oversee the district's educational and financial affairs. Three members would be appointed by the governor and two by the mayor.

The council would not supplant the nine-member mayorally appointed school board, but in a change designed to make the mayor more accountable for the system, the board members' terms would coincide with that of the mayor. Currently, members serve staggered six-year terms, while the mayor is up for election every four years.

The plan would also establish a parent-dominated council at each school, modeled on those in Chicago, with power to hire and fire principals and to approve the school's budget.

An aide to Mr. Evans said his proposal was not aimed at undermining Mr. Hornbeck's reforms, which have included dividing the district into 22 clusters of schools.

"The whole thrust of this was to build upon the work of the current superintendent," said Al J. Ferguson, an aide to the House appropriations committee.

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