by Jay A. McCalla

“Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” is one of those rare, neat phrases that requires neither explanation nor context. It’s a pithy warning about certain futility and probable doom.

With that in mind, let’s turn our attention to Mayor Jim Kenney and his announcement that Philadelphia will – by June 30th, 2018 – have sole governing responsibility for our network of public schools.

Kenney proposes a nine-member board appointed by himself to replace the SRC. Councilperson Jannie Blackwell has already introduced a bill to change the City Charter to allow City Council to confirm the Mayor’s appointees. After months of political meandering and seeming indecision, the path forward became crystal clear – in one day. The pols had united.

Prior to the SRC, there was a panel that made recommendations to the mayor, and he was bound to choose from among them.

No such constraints for Kenney. His process for appointing school board members will be purely political – particularly if he needs Council approval – and made with his impending reelection in mind. He must consider recommendations from key supporters such as Council President Darrell Clarke and Labor Boss/FBI target John Dougherty.

It’s not lost on the venerated denizens of our own fetid “swamp” that Philly public schools spend  $3 billion annually. They are accustomed to getting big chunks of that for themselves and their clients. Kenney dare not interrupt that ebb and flow, thus his appointments will reflect those interests as well.

The end of the SRC will not commence a new Age of Enlightenment in school governance. Hence, my “deck chair” reference.

The “big step forward” represented by Kenney’s pronouncement is that Philadelphia mayors will forever be directly responsible for the success or failure of city schools. Kenney says he wants the school district to “act like a department of city government,” integrating and coordinating its resources for the common good. A good executive will identify duplications in this new arrangement, eliminate them and capture the savings to be recycled to further support the schools. We shall see if that happens.

Operating and funding our schools properly will require an unusual level of political and moral courage on the part of Kenney, and I’m not confident he’s suited to the moment he has created.

Not only will the school district pile up a $1 billion deficit in the next five years, it urgently requires $5 billion to repair dilapidated buildings. These needs cannot be met by the Mayor’s typical reluctance to make hard choices.

Our pension fund is almost $6 billion underwater, and Kenney’s response is to make minimal payments while substantially pushing the problem onto the next mayor. And, he refuses to confront the additional $100 million DROP costs the city annually, which dramatically exacerbates the pension crisis.

The plainly wasteful relocation of the new Police HQ – tossing away $50 million– isn’t encouraging, either.

When it comes to education, Kenney has mastered the art of “small ball.” His early initiative was to use the Mayor’s Box at sporting events and concerts to raise money. He raised a measly few thousand. Now, he’s crowdsourcing basketball hoops, computers and other basics for public schools.

Given the almost stupefying amount of money needed to avert utter failure and create a quality education network, a massive infusion of cash is required that will only come from a local, substantial tax increase. Neither Harrisburg nor Washington can be counted on for one thin dime.

The method by which policy is made – SRC vs local board – was never the real problem, so Kenney’s plan is simply political and cosmetic. Our schools have always and only needed cash. The sole measure of Kenney’s sincerity is if he provides that cash.

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