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August 28, 2014, 9:12 am

Questioning plan for school district

The School District of Philadelphia announced Tuesday that it expects to close 40 public schools next year and eliminate hundreds of district administrative jobs in the next two years under a sweeping reorganization proposal that some fear is a move toward privatization and an abandonment of the public school system.

The district released a “Blueprint for Transforming Philadelphia’s Public Schools” which outlines the immediate changes necessary to expand high-achieving school programs, decrease violent incidents in all schools and deal with a projected budget gap of $218 million for fiscal year 2013 and a cumulative shortfall of $1.1 billion over five years if corrective action is not taken,” according to the district’s press release.

Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen outlined a five-year financial plan that includes about $560 million in budget cuts.

“We are bringing money and academics into balance,” Knudsen said at a news conference. “We cannot do one without the other going forward.

The plan would reorganize the district’s academic and administrative structure, severely reducing the size of the central office from 650 employees to about 200. Two years ago, the office had about 1,150 workers.

Officials said the district’s declining enrollment has left it operating at 67 percent of its capacity. Knudsen said if the district closes 40 of its 249 schools by fall 2013 it will reach 85 percent utilization. The plan calls for closing another six schools each year after that.

The reorganization plan is a major change from the traditional public school system.

Such a change should not happen without significant input from several community stakeholders, including: parents, students, teachers and community leaders.

Before such a proposal is approved by the School Reform Commission, officials should be prepared to answer the following questions:

Where has a similar plan been implemented and what is its record of success?

Some have suggested that New York is such a model. However, Diane Ravitch, who served in the U.S. Department of Education under both Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, said if Philadelphia is looking to New York as a model it is looking in the wrong place.

“New York City has not had any great success,” said Ravitch, according to a report in the Philadelphia Public School Notebook. Ravitch, in the city Wednesday for a conference of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, said, “New York used to boast of dramatic test-score gains, but they disappeared in 2010.”

Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon said among the district’s goals is to raise graduation rates by 2015 from the current 61 percent to 80 percent. Officials are also looking to reduce violence on campus.

What are the specific plans to achieve these goals?

The plan gives more autonomy to local principals and seeks to expand charter schools; how will these autonomous education officials and charter schools be held accountable?

Under the plan, the district could save $50 million by privatizing some of its services, including outsourcing custodial and transportation functions.

With principals making autonomous decisions and increased charter schools, what safeguards are in place so that contracts are not going to unqualified cronies?

Under a decentralized system how will the district assure parents of stability in schools?

What happens and who is held accountable if this plan fails to produce results? If students are not performing better academically and huge budget deficits remain, what happens then?

The school district will soon announce a set of public meetings throughout the city in May to gather input on the proposed plan. It is important that city residents attend, ask questions and tell school officials what they think of the plan.