Capitolwire: Rivera’s PDE culture shake-up welcomed by Senate Education Committee.

By Christen Smith
Staff Reporter

HARRISBURG (April 21) — Things are going to change at the state Department of Education, starting with its leader.

The shake-up couldn’t come soon enough for the Senate Education Committee, whose members took turns Tuesday heaping praise on the governor’s cabinet nominee, Pedro Rivera, and the cultural transformation he has developed for PDE since taking over four months ago.

“I’ve had the privilege of watching and working with the acting secretary and I’ve seen him in action making Lancaster City schools better and bringing equal opportunity to all students regardless of zip code,” said the committee’s Majority Chairman Sen. Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster. “Secretary Rivera is someone with a working knowledge of urban school districts and rural school districts across the commonwealth with a passion for making them the best that they should be.”

Rivera, an administrative veteran of school districts in Lancaster and Philadelphia, spent much of his nomination hearing Tuesday describing a vision of transparency, resourcefulness and accountability for the department — one that doesn’t rely on consultants, “one and done” contracts or a fear of overshadowing school boards’ local control.

“I want to ensure the state department is effectively serving the community it was created to support, whether it is a teacher looking for information about certification requirements or someone in need of a GED transcript,” Rivera said. “I would like to work to make PDE operations more transparent and accountable to our students and the taxpayers who fund us and I have assembled a team of practitioners, policy experts and public servants to move the department forward in establishing a culture of accountability.”

The department’s staffing shortages made headlines earlier this month when Auditor General Eugene DePasquale told the House Republican Policy Committee that school districts know phone calls to the department go unanswered on Thursdays.

“We have not always been as responsive as we should have been and could have been,” Rivera admitted Tuesday. “So the opportunity within that is, we have the opportunity to build the organization and fill those gaps in a much more deliberate, responsive and responsible manner.”

Take Rivera’s plans for a “school improvement specialist,” for example, who will fill one of the department’s several vacancies for an information specialist. The school improvement specialist, he says, will oversee all chief recovery officers and receivers appointed under Act 141, the School District Recovery Program. This specialist will assist recovery officers in developing plans that focus on both financial and academic solvency.

“We understand that if you only focus on finance without looking at governance, without looking at leadership, without looking at instruction, without looking at community involvement, it’s not only short-sighted, it’s not sustainable,” Rivera said. “So our approach to distressed schools is … we have to take a much more comprehensive approach to supporting those schools. So it’s taking a step back and understanding first and foremost that when we appoint a CRO or receiver, it’s someone that is extremely dynamic in all of those areas.”

Act 141, first enacted in 2012 to identify and revive financially struggling school districts, has earned some favorable reviews for its sole focus on fiscal issues, but Rivera and Senate lawmakers agreed Tuesday that school turnaround is about more than just money.

“I’m not sure with the (current) recovery process, there’s a cause and effect there,” said Sen. Rob Teplitz, D-Dauphin, whose legislative district includes a distressed school district (Harrisburg) under Act 141. “We are not seeing academic success overall.”

Earlier this month PennCAN released a report that concluded Act 141 wasn’t enough to help school districts recover and instead pointed to Massachusetts, Louisiana and Tennessee as models of successful recovery programs that tackled fiscal and academic improvement.

Rivera said Tuesday the department considered Massachusetts and Tennessee great examples for Pennsylvania.

“We tend to forget that for distressed schools, it may be a financial issue, but the impact on the local community is much more than finances,” he said. “If I share with you that we created a $10 million fund balance, but our kids can’t read, then we’ve not succeeded. I’d much rather come back and say, we created a $2 million fund balance and every kid in the school can read.”

The committee unanimously approved Rivera’s nomination, marking the second committee sweep for the governor’s cabinet nominees Tuesday. Leslie Richards, picked to lead the Department of Transportation earlier this year, won unanimous support from the Senate Transportation Committee during a nomination hearing early Tuesday morning.

Though, according to Jennifer Kocher, spokesperson for the Senate GOP Caucus, some of the upcoming nomination hearings may not go as smoothly.