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July 23, 2014, 5:32 am

Clarke questions school district plan

City Council had little say about reorganization

 

A lack of input from the community and the city’s powerful politicians may prove fatal to the School District’s new plan to close more than three dozen schools across the city.

“I think the process is flawed,” said Council President Darrell Clarke, noting that, according to school officials, the process of selecting which schools would close has been going for more than a year. The public just learned the details in December. “You should have started having this conversation early on.”

Several members of City Council made similar arguments — chiding the district for its handling of the plan. Council members faulted the plan on several grounds, worrying that the closings didn’t take into account the impact those closings would have on the surrounding neighborhood, or how students would be affected when moved to different neighborhoods, or by the distance some will be required to travel.

“There are a lot of questions about how this was done,” said Jannie Blackwell, head of Council’s education committee. Eight schools in her district are expected to close. “It’s just not tightly enough put together.”

Despite repeated attempts, Superintendent William Hite could not be reached Thursday for comment.

Blackwell said she hopes to hold hearings on the plan next month. The dates are still up in the air but she told the Tribune she wanted to schedule them on the first or second Tuesday of February.

Every council member polled by the Tribune agreed that some schools will have close.

“I certainly understand the School District’s position and financial circumstances,” said Councilwoman Cindy Bass. “We all know that they have been bleeding for many years.”

But, all three said they’d like to see the plan delayed.

Clarke, speaking as a representative of his district, and not council president, said he didn’t oppose “right-sizing.” And, Blackwell acknowledged that some schools will have to close.

No one blamed Hite, who has been in the District’s top position only since September.

School District officials, last month, released a list of 37 schools they expected to close due to falling enrollment. The plan would shift about 17,000 students to different schools. School officials contend it’s necessary for the cash-strapped district to close schools in an effort to save money.

However, the council president is not particularly pleased that Council was not part of the conversation as school officials drew up the proposal.

“They needed to have conversations outside of the School District family,” he said.

Doing so would have helped the District look beyond its present circumstances, said Clarke. As an example, he spoke about plans to close L.P. Hill Elementary and Strawberry Mansion High School because the number of students there has been dropping. However, he said, at least 194 new houses are being built near the school, which could bring a minimum of 200 students to the neighborhood.

“They had no idea about that,” he said. “This decision was made in a vacuum. There was a bean counter behind it.”

His sentiments were echoed by others on Council.

Blackwell said the plan didn’t seem to take into account the reality for many students in Philadelphia.

“Kids in this district can’t just go anywhere. We’ve got enough crime now — we don’t need that kind of crime,” Blackwell said.

Bass agreed.

“They have not given adequate thought or preparation to those closures,” she said, adding that she hopes to see a one-year moratorium on implementing the plan.

As an example she cited plans to close T.M. Pierce Elementary School and move students to E. Washington Rhodes Middle School.

“Walking from Pierce to Rhodes will be quite a challenge for young people,” she said, noting that the area between the two buildings was troubled by crime and blight.

Though he expected a broader discussion among council members, Clarke said this week, there has been very little group discussion so far.

Nearly a third of the schools expected to close are in North Philadelphia.

Ten of the 37 schools targeted for closing are in Clarke’s Fifth District. Two are in the adjoining portion of the Eighth District, represented by Bass, who has a total of five targeted schools in her district.

Clarke wondered why so many closings were planned in such a small area.

“There is a disproportionate number of schools to be closed in North Philadelphia,” he said.

That could seal the fate of an already troubled area.

“Realistically, the likelihood of a re-use of some of those buildings is extremely limited,” he said. “They close these schools down, and they walk away.”

That adds to blight and steers families away from the neighborhood.

“The first question always is ‘where are the schools?’” Clarke said.

The council president said that Hite briefed him personally on details of the plan the day before it was released to the public in a brief telephone conversation. Bass and Blackwell said they too had been briefed the day before the public announcement but none were consulted during the process of putting the plan together, they said.

Council’s options when it comes to influencing School District policy and SRC decisions are limited. Members can, and often do, give their opinions — but beyond that there is little they can do, aside from slashing school funding.

Council approved more money for the district in each of the last three years though in the last two budget cycles the city has sought to increase its power by first instituting a cooperative agreement with the district and then, last year, by awarding a portion of school funding as a grant, giving Council the opportunity to withhold funds.

Clarke said he expected the tug of war over money to intensify this year.

“We have no ability to influence operations,” he said. “The conversation, as to their ability to get more tax revenue out of the city, is going to be extremely limited.”

Blackwell was more explicit.

Noting that the SRC will not vote on the proposal until March she pointed out that Council will be heading into budget negotiations at the same time and the issue would be fresh in members’ minds.

“I am hopeful that we get some of this stuff worked out because if we don’t — you’re doggone right — we’re going to have a real problem here,” she said.

Clashes between city politicians and school officials are not new.

Former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman left the District after several high profile battles with the administration and City Council. Ultimately, she lost the support of many elected officials including Mayor Michael Nutter and several members of City Council, a fact that led to resignation.

Clarke urged residents to continue to oppose the plan.

“I think the community should continue to show its displeasure,” he said, adding that he too supports a moratorium on closings.

“We are hopeful that in the end, we can have not all of these schools close,” Blackwell said. “We’re hopeful the District will reconsider and have community input because they know what works in their area and what doesn’t.”

 

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. .