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When it comes to figuring out decisions, sometimes the best thing to do is to get out a legal pad, draw a line down the middle, put a plus sign on one side, a minus on the other, and see how it adds up.
Take Gov. Corbett’s decision last week to appoint Councilman Bill Green as chair of the School Reform Commission (SRC). So far, I have found only two people who were delighted with the decision.
One is Gov. Corbett. The other is Bill Green.
When Green’s name first came up six weeks ago, I called around to find out how real it was. The consensus was: It’s not a good idea. There are probably better candidates out there. If Corbett sits down and thinks about this, he will realize it’s not a good appointment and look elsewhere.
Corbett is good at the sitting down part. It’s the thinking part where he falls short.
In fairness, for the governor this is a win. He gets a Democrat with the gilt-edged name who generally agrees with his agenda on the schools.
So, I put a plus next to the fact that Green is Corbett’s clear choice. No matter how much you disagree with Corbett, the reality is that for the next 12 months he is a central player when it comes to the district, especially on the issue of funding.
Another plus to me is that Green is a hardliner when it comes to negotiating a new contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT). He was clear in statements he made last week that he believes the state takeover law gives the SRC the power to impose a new contract on the union.
Green and Farah Jimenez, Corbett’s other appointment to the SRC, still must be confirmed by the state Senate, a process that could take several months.
If I were the union, I would see those 60 or so days as a window to reach a deal on a new contract with the district before it has a chance to impose one. If the SRC does impose, the union would immediately appeal that decision and state law gives the state Supreme Court original jurisdiction in such a case. The union could win in court. It could also lose. Does it really want to find out?
Some people think that Green went for the job of SRC chair for political reasons. Stuck in Council, with the mayor’s office out of reach, he is seeking a position that will enable him, some day in the future, to run for higher office.
I don’t buy into that theory. Green is smart enough to know—and I am sure he has been told repeatedly—that being SRC chair is not a career maker, it is a career ender. At the end of his five-year term, he will be carried out on his shield.
He certainly is hitting the reset button on his career, but it’s unlikely he will see any political gain. I see it as a plus that he went for this job out of a sense of altruism—recognition of the importance of education to the city’s future and a desire to make a difference.
It’s not his smarts that have people wincing. It’s his disposition.
Being chair of the SRC is not an executive position. The district already has a CEO in William Hite. You are one vote out of five on a board that broadly oversees district operations.
A former chair of the school board once told me he saw his main job as covering the superintendent’s back. Superintendent Hite is—and should be—the public face of the district. As chair, your place is at the side of the podium, not center stage.
Pedro Ramos, Green’s predecessor, was an active, engaged chair but he rarely made public statements. In effect, he stood in the shadow of the superintendent. It takes subordination of ego to do that.
Will Green as chair be happy standing in the shadows? I think not. So, let’s pencil in a minus in that category.
An SRC chair also has to be adept as building consensus. He is only one vote out of five. The other four commissioners are smart, independent-minded people who can think on their own, thank you. They can’t be ordered about. As chair, you need to stitch together majorities. You are not a Decider. You are a Convincer.
It won’t be easy for Green to play that role. Again, it’s a question of disposition. It’s also now a question of politics.
Now that Nutter has said, in so many words, that he hates the idea of Green being SRC chair we may be seeing an end of the days when the SRC and the Mayor’s Office stayed on the same page, seeking similar policy goals and speaking in unison.
Last year, the PFT tried to peel Nutter away from that role and get him to publicly criticize Corbett. The mayor didn’t take the bait. Now Corbett has done what the PFT failed to do.
It’s not just a matter of rhetoric. Nutter has two appointees on the SRC.
The era of unity is over. Add another minus sign.
Finally, there is the matter of Bill Hite. Hite is a talented educator. What’s remarkable is that he’s also turned out to be a political asset, even though at essence his job has been to make a series of decisions most people hate. To summarize, he has closed schools, laid off thousands of teachers and staff and slashed school budgets. Yet, somehow he has emerged from this crucible with his reputation and political capital intact. I think it is because people see him as a true leader whose decency shines through, even in tough times.
As a leader, Hite is a conciliator. He doesn’t like confrontation. He doesn’t want to make enemies. It may be his biggest weakness, but it is also his great strength. If Green’s appointment is the beginning of an era of confrontation, if he wants to be the man behind the lectern, if he creates an atmosphere where conflict is the norm, Hite will leave. And if Bill Hite leaves that will be a huge minus.
Finally, passing laws is easy, implementing them is hard. Having policy ideas is easy, making them happen is hard. The way I see it, if Green is confirmed, the easy part of his public career is over. The hard part is just beginning.
There’s not many who think he is up to the challenge. I pray they are wrong.