Schools Superintendent William Hite defended the district’s decision to close 37 schools during a withering barrage of questions from city council members Tuesday as council’s education committee convened hearings on the school district’s plan to restructure the district.
“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.”
Officials plan to close schools in an effort to save $28 million, part of a larger plan to deal with a $300 million budget deficit. If implemented as presented, the plan would displace 17,000 students.
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. And, that it will allow the district to improve educational opportunities at the schools that remain open.
Council members pressed Hite for more details before the School Reform Commission votes on the plan in March.
“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.
“We have listened and are continuing to listen — these are not forgone conclusions,” said Hite.
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 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 be 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.”
The district’s plan has met with an outcry from the public and generated significant opposition on council, which has authority to allocate city tax revenue for the district. 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. That call was echoed several times throughout the hearings.
School commissioners are scheduled to vote on the plan on March 7.
Spectators gathered at in council chambers on Tuesday gave Hite a chilly reception.
Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, chair of the education committee, was forced to repeatedly use her gavel to bring order to the chamber, filled with hundreds of boisterous residents waving signs and shouting throughout the proceedings. Hite, who came to Philadelphia from Prince Georges County, Md., was greeted with yells of “carpetbagger,” “liar” and “keep our schools open.”
There was some personal support for Hite.
The Rev. Alyn Waller, pastor of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, noted that he was brought to the district after former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman resigned, and added that the problems went deeper than the superintendent’s office.
“If [Hite] is going to be brought before us, then [Gov.] Tom Corbett should be brought before us, and Mayor [Michael] Nutter ought to be brought before us,” Waller said, to shouts of support.
Waller added that a moratorium would put some pressure on council
“The reality is that if a moratorium happens, the school district would need money. It’s up to you to make sure the district gets what it needs,” he said.