PHILADELPHIA – In spite of protest rallies, letters, petitions and lawsuits by coalitions of parents, students, schoolworkers and community groups, the state takeover of the School District of Philadelphia (SDP) is now a fact. The school board has been replaced with a five-member School Reform Commission – three members appointed by the governor and two by the mayor.

The entire state takeover has been characterized by secrecy, backroom deals, lies and undemocratic practices. The public has been kept uninformed and the state of Pennsylvania has not asked for input from those most affected.

The School Reform Commission was created by a late-night amendment to Act 46 by the state legislature. Act 46, passed in 1998, set up the SDP for state takeover if it has a deficit. Its present deficit is $216 million.

Gov. Mark Schweiker appointed James Nevels as chairman of the School Reform Commission. Nevels is an African-American investment company CEO and a Republican. Schweiker’s other appointees are Verizon Pennsylvania CEO Daniel J. Whelan and Philadelphia University President James P. Gallagher.

Mayor John Street’s appointees are two former school board members: Michael Masch, a University of Pennsylvania vice president in charge of finances, and Sandra Dungee Glen, president of the American Cities Foundation. Dungee Glen, the only woman on the commission, is African-American.

The School Reform Commission has been empowered to run the Philadelphia schools. This includes appointing a CEO, making contracts with vendors, nullifying non-professional contracts and hiring private companies to manage 60 low-performing schools. The commission also has the power to tax city residents.

Within a week of his appointment, and before other commission members were appointed, Nevels awarded $675,500 worth of contracts to 10 politically-tied firms for such things as public relations and legal services. The Philadelphia NAACP questioned why scarce funds are being spent for services already available in the district. Others asked why Nevels was meeting with Edison Schools, Inc. officials even before the commission existed.

Edison is the Wall Street education company that takes over public schools to make a profit. It also turns out that Nevels was appointed to be part of the state takeover of the Chester-Upland school district last year. Edison now manages six of those schools.

The School Reform Commission held its first public meeting Jan. 23 and approved the contracts Nevels had already signed.

Three groups within Philadelphians United to Support Public Schools testified about unequal school funding and asked about real reform issues. Commission members agreed that the state funding system should be changed.