FUMO OFFERS INPUT ON PHILADELPHIA SCHOOL CEO SELECTION
February 12, 2001 -- State Senator Vincent J. Fumo (D-Philadelphia)
recently sent the attached letter to the Philadelphia School Board
concerning the qualities the board should look for when hiring a new chief
January 30, 2001
Pedro A. Ramos, Esq.,
Dear President Ramos,
Thank you for the invitation to provide input as the district conducts its search for a Chief Executive Officer. I will be unable to attend the hearings that you have scheduled, but I will take advantage of this opportunity, as you suggested, to provide a few thoughts in writing.
Although the duties of the former superintendent have now been divided between two separate positions, the job of Chief Executive Officer remains multi-faceted. While I understand that the CEO’s primary responsibility will be district finances, the person you choose will still be required to bring a wide array of talents and skills to the job.
I see pros and cons to dividing the job between two people, but overall I do not think it was unwise to spread the functions between people with expertise in financial and educational matters. I would caution the board and the eventual CEO, however, that the person in that role must have a thorough understanding of the essential educational aspects of the school district’s endeavors. There has been great focus in recent years on the financial problems that beset the Philadelphia School District, and justifiably so. As crucial as adequate resources are to our children’s educational achievement, however, dollars are merely the means to the end. A healthy financial picture for Philadelphia Schools, while important, is not our ultimate goal.
Just as people with educational expertise who ran the Philadelphia School District in the past did not always spend money efficiently, it is possible that an excellent money manager might not spend it productively. If the new CEO is to figure out how we get the biggest bang for our educational buck, he is going to have to understand education as well as dollars. The person you choose should make it his or her business to stay abreast of educational trends. The CEO should take the counsel of the educational leaders within the Philadelphia School District and keep in mind that his job is really to serve the educational side of the leadership structure, but at the same time he must seek independent knowledge about education. He should be willing to explore educational ideas apart from those held by the established bureaucracy in Philadelphia, all the while making sure that he has a sound fundamental understanding of educational practices. Only then will he or she be able to demand the sort of accountability necessary from everyone associated with the district -- from administrators, to teachers to parents to students.
The CEO must be open-minded about the restructuring of the district. For all his faults, former Superintendent Hornbeck took several steps in the right direction, one of them being the cluster concept. The new CEO should investigate whether even greater degrees of decentralization and neighborhood control might produce better schools throughout the city.
Perhaps most importantly, the new CEO will have to promote the district, especially among Philadelphians. Convincing taxpayers that the district is using their money wisely is an essential part of the job. Convincing parents and other residents that our children can receive a good education is equally important if we are to halt the flight from the city that serves only to weaken our public schools even more. Unfortunately, the school district has lost its broad constituency, and the new leaders of the district will have to work hard to rebuild it. As you are no doubt aware, approximately 80 percent of city residents do not have children in public school. That large majority perceives themselves as having no stake in the quality of the city’s education system, which it considers atrocious. No matter how misguided that notion may be, the political reality is that it prevents city council from taking steps to increase the local tax effort, which in turn is necessary to convince the state to invest more in Philadelphia.
I know from personal observation, as well as the testimony of others, that Philadelphia has many good schools, but the population at large is unaware of them. The poor image is so widespread that even the natural constituency, families with school age children, routinely reject public schools and seek other alternatives. By encouraging Philadelphians to take advantage of the excellent education available in many of its schools, the district would lessen the problem of students leaving for charter schools and Catholic schools, and would to some extent lessen the cry for vouchers. So to the people of Philadelphia, the CEO will have to be, in part, a public relations man.
For those outside the city, he will have to have political finesse. My colleagues in Harrisburg have heard all about the moral imperatives of sending more money to the Philadelphia School District. Sadly, it has no effect on most of them. If the new CEO can persuade the governor and legislators to see the justness of our cause, that would be wonderful. If he also knows how to play a good hand of poker and make friends while doing it, so much the better.
To make good things happen in the state capital, he will need to build bridges not only with state office-holders, but also with his fellow school superintendents, especially those in poor rural areas and other cities. There will not be state assistance for Philadelphia’s funding problems in a vacuum. School directors and school superintendents from other disadvantaged districts – and there are many in Pennsylvania – will have to band together and convince their legislators that we need an equity funding system that is in everyone’s mutual interests.
For the sake of the city and its children, I wish the board well in its decision-making process. If there is anything I can do to be of help, please do not hesitate to contact me.
VINCENT J. FUMO