If recent reaction to the School Reform Commission’s reorganizational blueprint serves as any kind of indicator, the SRC will have a long way to go to convince neighborhood residents and parents of the merits of plan.
The latest meeting — held on Tuesday at Enon Baptist Church — drew an estimated 2,500 concerned individuals, along with a bevy of elected officials; SRC officials were asked to participate and given questions in advance in order to be prepared to answer them.
“The purpose of the meeting was to let the community hear from SRC and school district leadership about the search for a new superintendent and the proposed plan for restructuring the school district,” said Enon pastor Alyn Waller. “But it was also for the district leadership to hear from the community our displeasure on how the process is going and an opportunity for the [community] group to come together is smaller discussion groups on the answers we received from the SRC.
“It was more about the district’s plans for decentralization and school closings.”
The school district’s Blueprint for Transforming Philadelphia’s Public Schools is a reorganization plan submitted to the SRC by Thomas Knudsen, the district’s chief recovery officer. The plan calls for a drastic change in the structure of the district by eliminating up to 64 schools, privatizing crucial services and continued cutbacks in after school, weekend and alternative programming.
The plan itself hinges on the district receiving $94 million from City Council through the controversial Actual Value Initiative. That plan reassesses homeowner property value, and theoretically, the new tax revenues from the new assessment will go to the school district. But so far, the AVI issue has been bogged down in Council hearings, and Council has shown it will be diligent and take its time in deciding the AVI matter.
Waller said the meeting as whole was a positive one, but he also wishes the SRC panel had been even better prepared to answer some of the tougher questions.
“The meeting was very structured and orderly because we designed it so. The community was very respectful, although we have, and I have, some very serious questions on how they handled it and answered questions,” said Waller, who also serves as assistant wrestling coach and King High School. “For me, the question will always be not if we have good public, private and charter schools, but what is going to happen to our neighborhood schools and what is the district’s commitment to them?”
Waller said the community also has questions regarding the criteria used to select a new leader, accountability, the degrading of public space that the district controls and the massive school closures.
“We believe fundamentally that public education is the Civil Rights issue of the day,” Waller said. “Information is the divide between the haves and the have-nots.”
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan attended the meeting at Enon and also provided testimony during a City Council hearing last Thursday that dealt with the budget crisis. He, too, thought the turnout would send a clear message to the SRC.
“It was very evident by the number of people that attended the town hall meeting, many after work, indicates the level of interest in what’s happening in the public school system, and that they are concerned,” Jordan said. “It shows the plan [the SRC] presented, one that has already been written, has raised a lot of concerns of a variety of stakeholders and other people with investment I education.
“The plan is now out there, and people are reacting to it.”
Jordan implied that the blueprint is essentially beyond the stage of rectification, and that the SRC will enact it — as is.
“I’m hoping that at this point, many parents have an understanding of the language used in education,” Jordan said, referring to his perception that instead of answering the questions in a direct manner, SRC leadership often danced around the issue. “‘Eduspeak’ scares a parent, because [the parent] doesn’t want to appear dumb, but they’re not.
“The SRC needs to speak plain English to parents, and I think that was done on purpose.”