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July 30, 2014, 7:18 pm

Critics: School closings hit Blacks, the poor hardest

NAACP, others vow to fight plan

 

Many African-Americans have voiced concerns that the school district’s plan to close more than three dozen schools hits Black and poor students harder than others.

“There are racial implications to this plan,” the Rev. Alyn Waller, minister at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, told council members this week.

Waller is one of several prominent Black leaders who have publicly opposed the plan. He and others testified Tuesday at city council hearings on the affects of the district’s Facilities Master Plan, which includes a proposal to close 37 schools across the district in an effort to save $28 million, part of a larger plan to deal with ongoing budget problems. If implemented as presented, the plan would displace approximately 17,000 students.

The proposal has met with outcry from the public, and generated significant opposition on council, which has authority to appropriate city tax revenue for the district.

A report by city Controller Alan Butkovitz noted a disproportionate impact in poor neighborhoods with largely Black populations.

“This … will affect more than 10,000 students, disproportionately concentrated in some of Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods,” said Butkovitz in the report. “Nearly 80 percent of the affected students are African-American – in a district that is 55 percent Black.”

The state conference of the NAACP is against the proposal, said President J. Whyatt Mondesire.

“The NAACP will oppose this consolidation plan by every means necessary,” he told council members. “We will resist it at meetings, public forums, in the courts and even with civil disobedience if warranted.”

Nearly a third the schools slated for closure are in North and Northwest Philadelphia. West Philadelphia also sees a major reshuffling of schools under the proposal.

Waller, in a previous interview with the Tribune, noted that few schools in the Northeast were affected by the plan.

Superintendent William Hite said that district officials selected schools to be closed based on a number of things, chief among them student performance.

“Their student achievement levels are dismal,” he told council. “We have too many young people, particularly poor and minority children, who are sitting in schools that are not offering them the type of education we should be providing.”

Hite said that ultimately the plan will help poor and minority children by offering them a better education in a more efficient school district that is able to give them more resources.

“Our whole attempt is to come up with a better, more educationally sound plan for all of our schools,” he said.

Falling enrollment across the district was another important factor. Continuing to operate the same number of schools with fewer students was a disservice to taxpayers, he said.

“We cannot spend money that we do have on empty seats. Only two-thirds of our schools are being used,” Hite told council.

Hite faced a barrage of questions from city council members, for nearly two hours Tuesday. He said repeatedly that district officials were making an “educational decision” based on school performance and enrollment, not one based solely on finances.

Few members of council seemed to believe him.

Councilman David Oh asked if the plan was “spurred by financial failure?”

“We have borrowed too much year after year to finance operations,” Hite said. “This is the unfortunate product of a lot of things that have not been managed over the last several years.”

School officials contend the plan is a reaction to a falling student population, which has dipped by 60,000 students from 2003 to an enrollment of about 149,000 students.

Council members pressed Hite for more details before the School Reform Commission votes on the plan on March 7.

He said the plan was being revised and would be announced next week and made available to the public and city leaders.

“We have listened and are continuing to listen – these are not forgone conclusions. There are some places where we have re-thought the recommendations,” Hite said. “It would be premature for me to talk about that today.”

In the meantime, council members sought more details of the current proposal.

“There are lot of unanswered questions,” said Councilman Curtis Jones, who quizzed Hite about how district officials decided which schools to close and whether they investigated how those closures would affect kids asked to attend schools in different neighborhoods that might be on different “turf.”

“I would be hard pressed to ask my colleagues to make a decision on half information,” Jones.

“We do have to answer those questions,” said Hite.” We do have to have a plan in place for safety and support. We are still in the process of reviewing recommendations. We’re asking parents to work with us.”

“The number one concern has to be our babies,” said Jones.

Others questioned how much the plan would really do for the perennially cash-strapped district.

“This is really small potatoes at the end of the day,” said Councilman W. Wilson Goode Jr., referring to the $28 million savings.

It was an assertion Hite refuted.

“I don’t characterize it as small potatoes,” he said. “It’s a pretty significant amount.”

Goode was not mollified and said he could not support any plan without a greater level of detail.

“Don’t ask for $28 million, don’t ask for $58 million, don’t ask for $78 million unless you tell us what it’s going to spent on,” he said. “Do not come to us asking for more money unless you can tell us where it’s going to be invested.”

Budget negotiations between council and the district have been acrimonious for the last several years as district officials have repeatedly asked for more money to help it end an ongoing budget crunch. In each instance, council raised taxes in response. That seems less likely this year.

Council recently approved a resolution calling on the School Reform Commission to delay the plan for one year.

 

To comment, contact staff writer Eric Mayes at 215-893-5742 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .