Parents, students, educators and community stakeholders will have two more opportunities this month to air their concerns about School District of Philadelphia Superintendent Dr. William Hite Jr.’s recommendation that the district close 37 schools, combine several others and change the grade specifications of a handful more.
Those meetings will be held on Tuesday, Jan. 29 at 6 p.m. at South Philadelphia High School, 2101 S. Broad St.; and at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 30 at Northeast High School, 1601 Cottman Ave. The district will also announce its slate of February community meetings in the near future.
For the school district, these meetings allow for officials — including the School Reform Commission members — to receive crucial community feedback relating to Hite’s recommendations and findings included in the “Action Plan v1.0,” which not only specifies the method in which the schools will be closed, but also outlines the district’s anchor goals and measurable metrics by which the district — and critics — can judge achievements.
“We have now had a number of meetings throughout the city, and what we have noticed, and not been surprised of, is the tremendous amount of passion — rightfully so — from students, school staff, parents and community members,” said School District of Philadelphia spokesman Fernando Gallard. “They are asking for more information and asking all the right questions. They are concerned about what’s going to happen to their community and their schools if they do close.
“They are also pleading for the district to reconsider closing their schools, because they don’t want to lose what they consider to be a part of their family, their neighborhood and their community,” Gallard continued. “In turn, we have been challenged to describe, clearly and concisely, what it is that we’re doing, and why we are doing it.”
Motive for the moves the district is contemplating is to bring financial order to the district, an entity that not too long ago was facing a $300 million-plus annual deficit — with the chance for that deficit to expand to roughly $1.3 billion over the next five years if certain measures aren’t enacted.
“The District has recurring expenses that exceed its revenues by over $250 million per year, amounting to a $1.35 billion dollar deficit over the next five years. This deficit was created by a confluence of factors — reduced state funding, a broken system of local tax assessment, charter-driven growth in the total public school population without new revenue, and failure to reduce spending commensurate with the reduction in revenue,” read a portion of the financial details included in the plan. “Though the District has made significant cuts to operating costs in recent years, our expenses are increasing — due in part to structural personnel costs (such as those incurred from employee pensions and healthcare), and ‘stranded’ overhead costs (the costs we must continue to cover even when students move between schools or out of District-run schools). In order to remain true to our Anchor Goal on academic outcomes, above, we must ensure financial viability and sustainability by achieving the savings detailed in the Five Year Financial Plan, and make smarter decisions about how we use our resources.”
Gallard said the conversations between the school district and concerned individuals at previous community meetings were spirited, but never crossed the line to become boisterous and disrespectful. According to Gallard, the passion exhibited was refreshing.
“They have been very good conversations, with a lot of back and forth. We are learning a lot about what people are concerned about and what works,” Gallard said. “There are concerns about safety, and if this will be the last time [communities will be faced with school closures]. They are also concerned about kids travelling from one end of the neighborhood to the other.
“We have heard these and made sure we have academic and safety plans for each one of those schools,” Gallard added. “So that’s where we are. We are encouraged by the interaction and passion, because it truly means people are concerned about public schools.”