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Not many lawyers would trade a partnership at one of Philadelphia’s old-line firms to work in a political minefield. But that’s exactly the kind of challenge that Wendy Beetlestone, the new general counsel of the School District of Philadelphia, wanted. In fact, the attorney went looking for trouble: “In conversations with friends I would say, ‘The only job I would take is one that is a logistical, political, and legal nightmare.’ Then I saw the ad and told myself, ‘Well, you’d better put your money where your mouth is.’” Though she grew up in Nigeria and was schooled in England, Beetlestone has family roots in the City of Brotherly Love: Her great-grandfather was once a principal in Philly’s public schools. Despite that sentimental attachment, she had no illusions about what she was getting into. The city’s long-standing problems with its school system are legendary, and lately things have gotten worse. In 2001 the school system operated on a deficit, and half its students failed to meet reading and math standards. As a result, the state took over, appointing a school reform commission and instituting an overhaul of the $1.4 billion district. Some schools were farmed out to university management, others to community control (“charter schools”), and still others to the for-profit Edison Schools Inc. — the largest, riskiest school privatization effort ever. Beetlestone, 41, a former partner at Philadelphia’s Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis, says the schools are now financially stable. But she still has to deal with the messy fallout from the past, such as a lawsuit by the city and its teachers union to keep Edison off their turf (the state put the company in control of 20 poorly performing schools). A school desegregation suit from the 1960s is also still alive. More recent is a suit by a pupil against the system’s new student code of conduct. Then there are standard service contracts, torts, and property damage suits — plus upcoming union negotiations and a five-year capital construction plan that will likely stir up more controversy. With all that on her plate, Beetlestone must be relieved to have an open invitation to return to Schnader Harrison. But she says she’s not going back anytime soon: “I’ve made a commitment with the school district to be here long enough to get things done,” she says. Not that she wants this “political and legal nightmare” to last forever. “I don’t see myself here in 10 years’ time,” she admits.

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