Pledging additional support and oversight for city schools, Mayor Nutter and Pennsylvania’s education secretary said Tuesday that change has come to the way the Philadelphia School District operates.
“This is a whole new ball game,” the mayor said. “We will be much more actively engaged and involved.”
The goal, Nutter and Ronald Tomalis said, is to stabilize a district that has been rocked by budget woes, backroom deals, a public fight over leadership, and the departure of a controversial superintendent.
Speaking at a news conference at district headquarters, Nutter and Tomalis announced the appointment of two “executive advisers” to work directly with district leadership and the School Reform Commission until a permanent superintendent is chosen to replace Arlene C. Ackerman.
They also said a working group of business experts is being formed to advise the SRC on changes in matters of operations and administration.
“We are going to reestablish the faith and trust that children, teachers, parents, and the entire taxpaying public in Philadelphia and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania should have and deserve to have in this district,” Nutter said.
Nutter chose Lori Shorr, his top education official, for one of the adviser jobs; Tomalis picked Edward Williams, a retired district chief academic officer. The two will have offices inside district headquarters and officially began work Tuesday.
Shorr and Williams will attend high-level district meetings and provide “real-time, two-way communication between and among the school district, the city, and the commonwealth,” Nutter said.
Shorr keeps her city title, duties, and paycheck—she makes $109,250 annually. Williams will be paid an hourly rate of $81.25, at a maximum of $650 per day, by the state.
Craig Carnaroli, executive vice president at the University of Pennsylvania, will be chairman of the Financial Operations and Systems Working Group, an unpaid position. The SRC will appoint a group of five to nine executives from around the city with expertise on financial, contracting, and personnel matters.
That group will study what is in place and make recommendations during the school year. It will begin meeting this month, officials said.
Tomalis said this would be a way for the SRC to broaden its business expertise, “reaching out to more people to bring in the intelligent people who’ve actually walked the walk in these areas and had to make tough decisions . . . and have the vision to look outside the traditional way of doing things.”
Large government agencies “tend to be a bit slow in addressing the headwinds that we’re up against,” and the working group is a way to counteract that, the secretary said.
The district, with its $2.8 billion budget, is “a very large, complicated enterprise,” Carnaroli said. “I look forward to leading a group of executives in sort of an outsiders’ view of what type of business practices and financial-administration systems can be useful to it, in laying a platform going forward.”
Officials described the new measures as an extension of the educational-accountability agreement the city, state, and district signed earlier this year, which gave City Hall and Harrisburg more access to district operations.
Nutter and Tomalis, who became Gov. Corbett’s education secretary earlier this year, said they have worked closely in recent months. That has not always been the case for those in Harrisburg and City Hall.
“I did not foresee that relationship being as strong and as productive as it’s been in the last few months,” Tomalis said. “We have established in the past three or four months a very powerful team.”
The two spoke with one voice when it came to the need for more oversight.
“I can assure you that personally I will be much more actively engaged in the ongoings of the district and the School Reform Commission. I feel about 101 percent sure that the secretary agrees on his side of this as well. We are partners,” Nutter said.
Acting Superintendent Leroy Nunery II said he welcomed the help—and the scrutiny.
“Mr. Mayor, I take on the challenge,” Nunery said. “I think you’ve got a great team of people here ready to go to work.”
Williams, who spent time as a district principal, regional superintendent, and head of the old Restructured Schools region, said he would work to pave the way for the permanent superintendent.
Too often in a new administration, “many of the people who are excellent people in the system are not used effectively,” Williams said.
His mission is clear, he said.
“Our focus must be on how we are helping schools to do what they need to do,” Williams said.
Nutter also said Tuesday that he has directed his deputy mayors and department heads to work with the district to maximize fiscal efficiencies and work in “much more coordinated fashion.” Both bureaucracies are coping with brutal years; the district has already made $629 million in cuts and shed thousands of jobs.
“We want to share best practices and achieve economies of scale where possible,” Nutter said. “Many of the departments and agencies of the school district almost match perfectly some of our departments.”
Nutter did not give a timeline for when he expects to appoint the fifth member of the SRC or when the search for a permanent superintendent might begin.
“We’re not that far along,” the mayor said of the superintendent search. “It’s more important to get it done right than to get it done quickly.”
Copyright (c) 2011, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Pa. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.