Pennsylvania Governor Fires Philadelphia School Reform Commissioner

by | March 2, 2015

By William Bender

Gov. Wolf appears to be moving ahead with his "Apocalypse Now" approach to governing, and School Reform Commission Chairman Bill Green is the latest head on a stake.

Wolf, fewer than six weeks into the job, called Green yesterday to inform him that he was removing him as chairman.

It was a bold move by the new Democratic governor -- on a Sunday night no less! -- that Green says might be illegal.

Wolf named Commissioner Marjorie Neff, a career educator, as the new chairwoman of the five-member SRC, which governs the 200,000-student Philadelphia School District.

"The School District of Philadelphia is in dire financial straits, and our children are being put at a disadvantage as a result of misguided cuts and poor decisions," Wolf said in statement last night. "The district was forced to make major cutbacks in transportation, security and janitorial services just to open on time last year. We must make new investments in education and provide a fresh path forward for Philadelphia's schools."

Green, a former City Council member appointed as SRC chairman by former Gov. Tom Corbett just last year, said that Wolf may have overstepped his authority. He said he plans to file an action in Commonwealth Court seeking a ruling on the matter.

"I accepted the position of chair with the understanding from the district's own general counsel that the chair could not be removed from office. The SRC statute . . . makes clear that no commissioner may be removed from office except for misfeasance and malfeasance," Green said in a statement.

"I hold the office of chair and the office of commissioner; there is no vacancy in the chair and no legal basis for another commissioner to be named chair. This is important: By limiting removal to cause, the SRC statute makes clear that commissioners, once appointed, need to be free from political repercussions for their actions in office," he said.

The shake-up follows an SRC vote last month to approve five new charter schools, a move the Wolf administration opposed. Neff did not vote for any new charters.

"Marjorie has dedicated her entire career to education, and she shares my vision for investing in public education so our children have the resources they need to succeed in a modern economy," Wolf said. "I am confident that Marjorie will be able to engage in a collaborative way the different interests involved in leading the school district, and it will be refreshing to have an educator who understands the needs of our schools as chair. I look forward to working with her to restore cuts and reverse the public education deficit in Philadelphia."

Green said by phone that he wasn't sure if he had been stripped of his chairmanship because of the charter-school vote.

"I have no inside knowledge as to the governor's motivations, except that his strong financial backers in the campaign have a national agenda to interfere with education-reform efforts," he said. Wolf was endorsed in last year's campaign against Corbett by the unionized teachers of the Pennsylvania State Education Association and received hundreds of thousands of dollars in teachers union donations.

School district Superintendent William Hite called Green "one of the most effective governance chairs I've ever had the opportunity to work with," but downplayed the impact of Wolf's move, saying that he works well with Green and Neff.

"I don't see this as a significant change," Hite said, adding, "If there is something that is concerning, it's that this will present itself as a distraction."

The district is facing an $80 million deficit for the coming school year and is preparing to release a new strategic plan.

Green said he wouldn't seek to block Neff from being seated as chairwoman during the legal process.

"I have a great relationship with Commissioner Neff," he said. "I'm not going to run into court and seek an injunction or interfere with the governor's decision in any way, until a court rules in my favor."

Wolf has been on a warpath since being sworn into office. On his second day, he rescinded more than two dozen appointments made by Corbett, his Republican predecessor, including the state's Open Records officer, a former Republican Senate staffer.

Democratic state Sen. Vincent Hughes lauded Wolf's latest move last night, calling Neff an "experienced and well-respected educator." Neff has served as principal of Julia R. Masterman School and Samuel Powel Elementary School.

"I also believe that Gov. Wolf has a right and responsibility to put together a team that reflects the landslide victory delivered by voters in November," Hughes said in a statement. "This team must reflect the will of the electorate. The people in Philadelphia clearly and unequivocally said they wanted a new direction at the School Reform Commission. The appointment of Ms. Neff accomplishes this goal."

(c)2015 the Philadelphia Daily News