The forum — which took place on March 9 at the renowned String Theory School in Center City — explored the candidates’ educational and technological vision for the City.
ABOVE PHOTO: Some of the mayoral candidates who participated in the forum, along with moderator Catherine Hicks and the panelists. ( Photo/NAACP Philadelphia Branch)
By Amy V. Simmons
To date, many of the mayoral candidate forums have had the issue of crime and gun violence in Philadelphia as their main focus.
The next mayor of Philadelphia will also need to prioritize a number of other critical issues, including widespread poverty, infrastructure, and current policies concerning the City’s tax structure. All of these areas and more need to be addressed when it comes down to advancing educational, technological and business opportunities for the City’s residents.
Posing questions to the candidates were: Jason Corosanite, co-founder of String Theory Schools; Denise Clay-Murray, political editor for the Philadelphia Sunday SUN and Dr. Naomi Johnson Booker, founder, and CEO of Global Leadership Academy (GLA), a K-8 charter school located in West Philadelphia.
Eight mayoral candidates took part in the forum; former Councilmembers Helen Gym, Derek Green, David Oh, Cherelle Parker and Maria Quinones-Sanchez; Warren Bloom; retired Judge James DeLeon, and former City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart.
Catherine Hicks, NAACP Philadelphia Branch president and publisher of the SUN, served as the forum’s moderator.
Before the forum got underway in earnest, Corosanite took the opportunity to announce String Theory Schools’ commitment to put $1 billion into rebuilding Philadelphia’s schools, with details expected in the coming days.
Hicks began the forum by noting that all children should be able to attend well-appointed, innovative schools like String Theory.
“Our children deserve to be able to go into a school where they don’t have to worry about asbestos, no heat or no air,” she said.
There are other quality schools in the city that also offer state-of-the-art amenities, such as the institution that NAACP Philadelphia Branch education chair Veronica Joyner’s Mathematics, Civics and Science Charter School, but that’s not enough, Hicks said.
“We need the whole city to have schools that our children are proud to go to,” she said.
Corosainte led the line of questioning by asking the candidates where they stood on the issues of a possible moratorium on charter school expansion and whether the school board should be appointed or elected.
In general, all of the candidates at the forum are in support of an appointed school board and support for all of Philadelphia’s schools.
Rhynhart believes in a student-centered approach to education where the city, led by the mayor, should are focused on providing a quality education for all students, whether they be in traditional public schools or charter schools, she said.
Rhynhart also supports the idea of an appointed school board, one that would share her vision for accountability, focusing on what works.
“I think there’s real power for accountability and having this appointed school board, if used correctly,” she said.
While Philadelphia is the only city in the Commonwealth to not have an elected school board, it’s the only city in the Commonwealth that does not have a school board that’s allowed to raise its own revenues — a key distinction, Gym said.
As a result, everything is considered to be a burden to the tax system, she said.
For Green, campaign finance reform would have to occur before even considering a move to an elected school board, he said.
“Before we have any type of elected school board, we need campaign finance reform in the city of Philadelphia to make sure that if we do have any type of move in that direction, we make sure that’s an even playing field for everyone,” Green said.
Quinones Sanchez, who was on the board of one of the first charter schools in the city of Philadelphia and is founder of a charter school in eastern North Philadelphia, started the school because of the City’s lack of a defined bilingual program — a problem that continues to this day More money than not necessarily lead to better outcomes, she said.
“We have to address the structural issues around the school district and what it can and cannot do,” Quinones-Sanchez said.
Parker supports an appointed school board, particularly after fighting so many years for local control, but the board has to share the values of the mayor, she said. In addition, she would like to see the charter school system become more equitable.
“I know that when we do think about the authorization or the loss of charters, I’ve heard from Black and brown operators who filled disproportionately negatively impacted by the decisions that the school board and the administration that they have made about who will remain open and who will close,” Parker said.
Clay-Murray asked the candidates whether they would be supportive of fully implementing the 2005 mandate requiring that African American History be taught as part of the Philadelphia School District’s K to 12 curriculum. The candidates were also asked about their personal understanding of how the School District of Philadelphia actually works in relation to City government.
All of the candidates stated that they considered African American History instruction to be a priority.
“The [fact that the] struggle that was started with the late State Representative Dave Richardson still has not been implemented in the school district is unconscionable,” Green said. “As mayor, I’ll make sure that my school board appointees will make that change.”
In answer to the second question, Green said that the relationship with the school district and the city is broken, particularly when it comes down to issues of public health like the removal of asbestos from the City’s schools.
Quinones Sanchez also cited the aging school infrastructure.
“One of the last issues that I was working on [in City Council] was trying to build a school building authority, and the reason is that 90% of the School District hearing time is [spent] on buildings,” she said. “We have a capacity issue at the School District around how it deals with these buildings. The buildings are 100 years old. Let’s knock them down. Let’s build new ones. Let’s commit to a K to 8 school within walking distance of every child and figure out what it takes to get there.”
The relationship between the School District of Philadelphia and the city of Philadelphia should be cooperative, especially when it comes to training students for careers that do not necessarily require college degrees, like those offered by the police, fire, and water department that provide a living wage, health care and access to a defined benefit retirement security package, Parker said.
DeLeon also referenced the contributions of Rep. Richardson, as well as the late Dr. Ed Robinson in the struggle to include African American history into the school curriculum. He worked with both men on the issue, he said. To him, the self-respect and knowledge gained when one learns their history are one of the keys to students’ success.
“You have to make people feel good about themselves, and that starts in school, when they read how their ancestors were giants — how their ancestors helped make the world the place that it is today,” DeLeon said. “That makes them feel that they are somebody, because what we’re trying to do is reverse generational poverty.”
DeLeon feels that the mayor needs to be more hands-on and vocal when it comes to advocating for students.
“[As mayor] I have to be part of what’s going on as to the raising of our children and their education to make sure that each child has a chance to be somebody.
Oh is proud of the comprehensive African American history that he learned as a Philadelphia public school student in the Kingsessing section of the city, and thinks all Philadelphia’s students should receive the same, he said.
Oh also believes that Philadelphia’s school board should not be based in the School Administration Building, and would address this as mayor.
“If I am talking to someone in the school administration, who’s doing contracts, bonding, insurance, and I’m having those conversations, and now I’m asked to provide oversight, am I not compromised? I think they should not be in the building itself. They should exercise oversight from an arm’s distance. There’s definitely issues about conflict of interest.”
In her question, Johnson Booker asked the candidates what they thought about the 80% illiteracy rate in schools that the district itself claims exists, and how they would address it.
All of the candidates see this statistic as a major crisis, either stemming from staff shortages, disinvestment, diminished expectations, or cultural incompetency, among other things.
Placing literacy experts in the schools is only part of the solution, DeLeon said.
“We also have to change the way we’re looking at how certain students are going to graduate, because there are some of them will not graduate with their class, [namely] because they won’t be able to pass the graduation test,” he said. “So maybe while they’re sophomores, maybe while they’re juniors, we should start giving them a GED while they’re in high school. … We have to think outside the box as to what we’re doing with the literacy issues in our schools today.”
Another question posed to the candidates — this time by Clay-Murray — concerned racial impact laws and whether they would support a policy that requires Philadelphia to conduct an analysis of whether or not an ordinance or executive order had a racial impact on the City’s residents. The second part of her question addressed their plans for public safety in the event of another pandemic.
In general, the candidates referenced previous legislative actions regarding racial impact laws or policies that are already in place but did not suggest any new remedies.
Bloom addressed the pandemic portion of the question.
“We had this situation that we basically just came out of, and the reason why we just came out of it is because we were able to get a vaccine,” Bloom said. “We might still have to get a vaccine for the next one. We don’t know but it appears that they come up every 100 years. So we might be in a situation where we don’t have to worry about that during our lifetimes. So basically, I would have health directors with me every step of the way on that one.”
During the question-and-answer portion of the program, the remaining candidates took questions from the audience on topics such as their support for unions. Additionally, the candidates were asked how they would deal with the tax burden placed on longtime residents whose neighborhoods are being overrun by developers and others who are exploiting the City’s tax abatement policy, as well as the unfair effects this has on the assessment of property taxes.
There was also a question regarding the difficulties young, inexperienced graduates face in getting traditional City jobs, many of whom are falling through the cracks because of a lack of vocational education and alternative training opportunities. The lack of experience is also a major obstacle, not only for recent grads, but their parents and other family members as well.
However, when it comes to many of these jobs, they are not jobs that you can just hire people outright, Oh said.
“We have a Civil Service Commission,” he said. “They set the standards, and that’s done in conjunction with unions. So the unions also kind of lay out what the qualifications are. The mayor cannot just simply start overriding all those things by him or herself. What I would say, however, is that, yes, we have to make sure that we have fair opportunities.”
In addition to the NAACP Philadelphia Branch, forum sponsors included String Theory Schools, Logan Square Neighborhood Association, MIR Strategies, LLC, and the Philadelphia Sunday SUN.
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