City Council questions structure of Board of Education

Board of Education
City Councilmember Isaiah Thomas wants to change the way members are nominated to the school board.
Metro file

Philadelphia’s move to a locally-controlled Board of Education in 2018 was much celebrated, following nearly two decades of state control of the city’s public schools.

But the board’s relationship with City Council appears to be on shaky ground, with lawmakers, in a surprising move, delaying a vote last week to ratify two new board members picked by Mayor Jim Kenney.

“I just cannot support a system that does not have transparency, as well as a system that I don’t believe in,” Councilmember Isaiah Thomas said Thursday before the vote was tabled.

Council could still approve the nominees — Sarah-Ashley Andrews and Chau Wing Lam — but they would need to be convinced by Thursday, the body’s last meeting before its summer break, which runs until September.

Thomas was clear that his stance was not based on the backgrounds or views of Andrews and Lam. Rather, he said he wants the process reshaped, with some board members elected, possibly based on geographical districts. He also advocated for a full-time, paid board.

Under the current arrangement, the board is not compensated and all nine members are appointed by the mayor from a pool of candidates selected by a panel of community leaders.

Thomas, during the Council meeting, said his request to extend the nomination deadline was ignored by Kenney’s office and that lawmakers were not able to have in-depth conversations with Andrews and Lam.

“I do think we as a Council body should be more engaged in the selection process,” added Councilmember David Oh.

Oh and Thomas argued that the board has not been responsive to requests from Council.

Councilmember Maria Quinones Sanchez, who chairs the body’s education committee, agreed to hold the resolution for a week, though she said she “would not want to leave the school board at the end of this session without these two members.”

A spokesperson for the Board of Education did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

Sarah Peterson, a Kenney administration spokesperson, noted that Thomas’s concerns are more about the board, not the mayor’s nominees.

“We hope for a vote this week that reflects Council’s view of the two eminently qualified Board appointees,” Peterson told Metro in an email.

During a fairly uneventful and brief hearing earlier this month, Council members questioned Lam and Andrews and appeared satisfied.

Lam is an administrator with the Philadelphia Academy of School Leaders, an organization that works to develop effective principals. Andrews is a family therapist who founded the nonprofit Dare 2 Hope, a youth suicide prevention group.

Thomas indicated he was disappointed that the district’s Charter School Office recently recommended closure for two schools with Black leaders — The Laboratory Charter School and Southwest Leadership Academy.

Board members launched an independent investigation in December over whether racial bias was a factor in charter school renewals, and Thomas, who attended a related protest earlier this month, was under the impression that no decisions would be made until the report was released.

School board officials, when the probe was authorized, stated the results would be published in fall 2022.

Meanwhile, the board is scheduled to consider the fate of the two schools, along with Memphis Street Academy, at a meeting Thursday. District staff reported in May that the charters did not meet standards around academic success, organizational compliance and/or financial health.

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