Published Online: November 8, 2011

Behind Closed Doors With Philadelphia's Troubled Schools Commission

Since a shakeup began almost two months ago, members of Philadelphia’s powerful School Reform Commission have been vocal in declaring their newfound commitment to transparency and accountability.

Last week, the three current commissioners set out to show that they’re serious about walking the talk.

Over the course of five remarkable days, the new-look SRC responded to a series of requests by the Notebook/NewsWorks by making interim Chairman Wendell Pritchett available for an extensive sit-down interview, releasing a collection of sensitive confidential documents, and, most notably, granting unprecedented access to an “executive session”—the group’s private discussion before its public meeting.

The last decision, in particular, was a stunning departure from past practice. For years, local advocates have criticized the SRC for conducting most of its deliberations behind closed doors.

The meeting revealed a governing board that is still in flux, attempting to manage a dramatic transition on the fly.

The commission’s three members are simultaneously trying to get to know one another, oversee controversial school closings, and help steer the district through its latest financial crisis—all while attempting to win back the trust of a skeptical public still outraged by recent revelations of backroom dealing.

Pritchett, a lawyer by training who is the chancellor of Rutgers-Camden University, is keenly aware that the SRC’s success will depend in part on an increased willingness to deliberate in public—a goal of Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act that the old SRC generally ignored.

“As a citizen myself, I understand the skepticism about how governmental decisions are made because I sometimes share it,” said Pritchett during an interview with the Notebook/NewsWorks. “The default should be that discussion happens in a public session.”

Granting a reporter access to a portion of last week’s executive session was an important step in that direction, said the district’s Acting Chief of Communications Fernando Gallard.

“The commissioners believe it would be a great advantage for the public to see what goes on in executive session, so they can see that the conversations that are happening are appropriate,” said Gallard. “We’re trying to be as open and transparent as possible.”

During the 45 minutes for which a Notebook/NewsWorks reporter and a photographer were present during last week’s session, Acting Superintendent Leroy Nunery and Deputy for Strategic Initiatives Danielle Floyd previewed for the SRC the presentation of school closing recommendations they would unveil publicly just hours later.

During a lively back-and-forth, the commissioners gave Nunery and Floyd advance notice of the questions they would be asking during the evening’s public meeting and coached them on how to sell parts of their plan. They also talked through logistical details about the actions they will need to take as the facilities process moves forward. They did not discuss any of the specific schools targeted for closure.

In the open session that followed, the public was not informed that any private conversation between the SRC and district leaders about the facilities master plan had already taken place.

But the commission’s public discussion of the district’s facilities recommendations was rich, unscripted, and often pointedly critical. Two of the commissioners questioned the scaled-back nature of the overall facilities plan, raising concerns in public they had not directly shared with district leaders during the private session.

The recent changes are meaningful steps in the right direction, said David Lapp, an attorney with the Education Law Center who has handled Sunshine Act cases involving the school district for the Notebook.

“Whenever they open up their discussions, I think it’s a good thing,” said Lapp. “It’s important [the SRC] recognize that the public has a right to be part of the process.”

A Seat at the Table

The SRC’s twice-monthly executive sessions take place in a comfortable conference room in the superintendent’s office. On the walls of the room are colorful photos and artwork and the painted words, “What’s in the best interest of the children?”

According to district staff, the first hour or so of last week’s closed session was devoted to confidential discussions on permitted topics. The state Sunshine Act allows public bodies to meet privately in executive session on six specific types of issues, including personnel matters, labor contracts, and real estate deals.

After three of the district’s lawyers exited the conference room, Gallard escorted the Notebook/NewsWorks reporter and photographer in.

Seated around a large table were 10 people: Commissioners Pritchett, Lorene Cary, and Joseph Dworetzky; the district’s two new “executive advisors,” Lori Shorr and Ed Williams; Acting Superintendent Nunery; and district staffers Floyd, Gallard, Erin Davis, and Danielle Seward. Davis is the chief of staff for the SRC. Seward is the superintendent’s point person for SRC affairs. Shorr is also the city’s chief education officer.

At Pritchett’s behest, Floyd launched into the PowerPoint presentation she and Nunery would deliver publicly a few hours later.

When Floyd slipped into jargon about “grade reconfigurations” and “predictable pathways,” the commission’s newest member interrupted.

“Every time I hear that, it makes my teeth hurt. If you would just say it in regular language, it’s so much better,” said Lorene Cary, a writer who also directs a community-based arts center.

Dworetzky a lawyer and former city solicitor who is the lone holdover from the previous SRC, immediately responded.

“You’re going to change a lot of things around here if you keep making that kind of comment,” he quipped, drawing laughs.

The discussion moved quickly. The commissioners jotted down notes and referred to the thick binders of information they received before the meeting. District staff came and went from the room. BlackBerries and iPhones buzzed constantly.

During the closed session, the commissioners did not directly discuss with each other or with district staff the overall scope of the facilities plan, which has since come under scrutiny for being less far-reaching than anticipated. But one exchange foreshadowed the public debate that was to come.

In the advance presentation, Nunery alerted the commissioners that a plan for overhauling high school facilities and career and technical education was not yet complete and would be unveiled at a later date. Dworetzky interjected, expressing concern that the commission would be asked to vote on a partial list of facilities recommendations without knowing what was coming next.

The acting superintendent responded indirectly on the timeline for the high school plan.

“I’d say we’re about 60 percent there, but the next 40 percent is really important,” he said.

Immediately, Shorr, who now provides support and oversight to both the SRC and the district’s leadership team, jumped in.

“Joe, you said you wanted to know [the plan for high schools] prior to when you had to make a vote on [the other facilities recommendations],” she said to Dworetzky. Then, turning to Nunery: “I didn’t know if you heard that.”

Later, in open session, Dworetzky and Nunery would reprise their exchange, with the commissioner publicly calling for more information on the district’s long-term plans before the SRC is required to vote on the immediate facilities recommendations.

Shorr would ask district officials about the merits of their go-slow approach.

And after the meeting, Pritchett would openly question whether the district’s recommendations go far enough, telling reporters, “We need to do more.”

The Spirit of the Law

Last spring, suspicions about what went on in the School Reform Commission’s lengthy closed-door sessions turned into front-page news.

A Notebook/NewsWorks investigation revealed that former Chairman Robert Archie had participated in closed-door meetings about redirecting a lucrative charter school contract at Martin Luther King High—after publicly recusing himself from a vote awarding the contract due to a conflict of interest.

The Notebook/NewsWorks also reported that state Rep. Dwight Evans had been allowed into an SRC executive session to discuss the King charter deal. A later fact-finding report by Joan Markman, the city’s chief integrity officer, blasted Archie for facilitating Evans’s behind-the-scenes strong-arm tactics on behalf of a favored organization.

Ellen Kaplan of the good-government watchdog group Committee of Seventy said the controversy involving King raised important questions about how the SRC operates, including during executive sessions.

“There should be clear and publicly articulated ground rules covering what can be heard in executive session,” she said. “Other than matters that require confidentiality according to the Sunshine Act, the SRC should do its business in public.”

Historically, the SRC and district have argued that so long as the commissioners are not using executive sessions to either make a decision or directly deliberate a pending decision, they are within the bounds of the law.

As a result, many have suspected that the commission has discussed just about anything they want behind closed doors.

That view was not far off, according to a review of over 50 SRC executive session agendas dating back to April 2009 that the district chose to release to the Notebook/NewsWorks last week. An accompanying letter from the district’s open records officer said the SRC was not legally required to release the past agendas but was doing so to promote transparency.

The partially redacted documents show that the SRC has regularly scheduled executive session discussions on a topics ranging from bond issues to district facilities to transportation issues.

In fact, on Feb. 24, 2010, the SRC discussed all three of those issues in a single closed-door session, according to the documents.

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Then, the following month, on March 17, 2010, the SRC’s executive session agenda called for a 75-minute “Superintendent’s Report” on “Hot Items,” including the Renaissance Schools initiative and South Philadelphia High School.

Briefings and information exchanges are not explicitly forbidden under the law, said the Education Law Center’s David Lapp. But regularly holding such extensive conversations as part of executive session can create the appearance of impropriety and runs counter to the intent of the Sunshine Act, he added.

“This is a small group that has the power to make decisions that affect hundreds of thousands of children and involve billions of dollars in public money,” said Lapp. “The spirit of the law is they should be having those discussions in public.”

Interim Chair Pritchett says he agrees that the SRC should hold more of its discussions in public.

For the time being, said district spokesperson Gallard, the SRC will consider media requests to sit in on portions of its executive sessions on an ad hoc basis. Pritchett said he hopes the commission can quickly move towards shortening its executive sessions.

But formally instituting any structural changes, said the interim chairman, can only happen after the Pennsylvania Senate finally gets around to confirming gubernatorial nominees Pedro Ramos and Feather Houstoun, who are waiting to fill the commission’s two vacant seats.

“It is difficult to make those decisions until we have all five commissioners,” said Pritchett. “I would really like all five of us to agree this is how we’re going to operate moving forward.”

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