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It can be a thankless job: Implementing sometimes hurtful policies, repairing what others have mangled, and doing so under the unrelenting pressure of public scrutiny.
It is a job where you are the first among equals—the leader of a commission of people who have been chosen for their dynamism, accomplishments, and, yes, their political ties. Your votes are taken, your pronouncements are made, and at the end of the day, when the pontificators have second-guessed you, there are quiet moments. It is then that the responsibility is heaviest, because this job—this unpaid public service—requires you to make decisions that can permanently impact the lives of nearly 135,000 students.
That is what the chair of the School Reform Commission (SRC) does. He or she leads a group that makes hard choices, absorbs withering criticism, and comes back to do it all again. It is a job that Pedro Ramos has done since being appointed by Gov. Tom Corbett in 2011. Now that Ramos is leaving the post, a huge question looms: Who will be next to head the SRC?
The answer rests in the hands of Corbett, the Republican who appointed Ramos, a Democrat, to the position. Corbett, who has three appointees on the board while Mayor Nutter has two, will decide, with state Senate approval, who will fill the vacant seat left by Ramos’s resignation.
“The type of person we’ll be looking for is one that can continue to lead the SRC and direct School District reforms,” Corbett spokesman Jay Pagni told me. “A lot of progress has been made. Mr. Ramos ably chaired the SRC … Politics aside, this is about making sure we have someone who can lead the SRC and ensure that moving forward we continue the path that we’re on.”
Pagni rightly pointed out that under Ramos, the governor, the mayor, and the SRC shared some ideals. For example, the Corbett and Nutter administrations both called upon the teachers to make concessions concerning seniority and other work rules, and under Ramos, the SRC approved changes in seniority that will allow teachers to be reassigned where they are needed most.
That bothered some education advocates and rankled the teacher’s union, which has often pointed to the SRC as the source of its troubles. In May, just before the SRC voted to adopt a barebones $2.4 billion spending proposal, American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania Chapter President Ted Kirsch stood outside School District headquarters and condemned the SRC as criminals.
That is the kind of vitriol the SRC faces on a regular basis, and whoever is appointed to replace Ramos will have to possess the kind of temperament to allow them to soldier through. Sandra Dungee Glenn, who now serves as Senior Policy Advisor to state Sen. Vincent Hughes, knows well what it takes to do the job. She once served as the SRC Chairperson.
“You have to be a collaborative leader,” Glenn told me. “In this time particularly, you have to be the individual who can hold a bully pulpit. You have to be able to create the belief that public education can work.”
In this time of budget upheaval, the new leader will have to have a vision for public education that is achievable, and be savvy enough to bring that vision to fruition. It is, Glenn said, about balance: having respect for the enterprise and at the same time being responsive to legitimate concerns. Decisions can’t be solely about the budget.
“You have enough the chutzpah to stand up for the right thing, the integrity to do the right thing, and the sense to know what the hell the right thing is,” she said.
The new SRC Chairperson will have to make decisions that might not please every constituency, but do so in a way that conveys a genuine concern for public education, Glenn said. They will have to be able to deal with the very real concerns of teachers and staff who are hurting in the current public education environment. But the appointee will also have to be able to deal with the business community, and be critical of political leaders without being disrespectful.
“Having served in that position I found personally that from a number of sectors—political, civic, schools, parents—people want to trust you, number one,” Glenn said. “So being honest and respectful went a long way.”
But the job wasn’t easy for Glenn, and it won’t be easy for whoever is next.
“It’s the most frustrating and difficult thing I’ve ever done,” Glenn said, “but I didn’t find it thankless. I found people to be appreciative and supportive of what we were trying to do.
“What does it look like to walk through a time of transition?” she wondered aloud. “Things are not going to be how they have been, but if you’re willing to move forward, things can be better.”
As the product of Philadelphia’s public schools, and the parent of a current public school student, I sincerely hope that Glenn is right.