Neighbors hoping to learn more about the Philadelphia School District’s transformation plan – a brutalizing overhaul that calls for the closure of 40 public schools this year as well as the annual shutdown of six schools every following year through 2017 – were seemingly left searching for answers after a community input meeting held Wednesday, May 2 at Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, at 1901 N. Front St.
During the meeting, residents noted that elements of the overhaul plan were so vague that district officials had few clear answers to provide.For example, one element of the plan is what Philadelphia School District officials are calling “Achievement Networks,” which would be groupings of public schools.
Officials that evening referred to this idea as a way to “decentralize” the school district – i.e., get important decision making for schools out of the district’s Center City headquarters and into the hands of those in charge of these networks.
Yet how these schools would be organized isn’t clear. Thomas Knudsen, chief recovery officer for the PSD, said schools could be grouped by 20 or 30, by region, grade levels, school types – like vocational and art schools – or other categories.
Some in the audience worried that these “Achievement Networks” signaled a plan to privatize public schools, however, Knudsen countered that the idea is just a “framework of support” at the moment, and the schools would remain public, and would not become charters or privately controlled institutions.
“This is a blueprint. It’s a blueprint, not a finished house,” he said. “There’s no structure, yet, for the Achievement Networks.”
In fact, he said the network idea is so fresh, it wouldn’t likely be implemented until 2014, with perhaps a pilot program begun next year to see test it out.
Another concern was specifics about the 40 schools that would close – which ones are they? Have they already been selected? If not, how would they be?
No schools have yet been announced as one of these 40 to close, but Darienne Driver, the school district’s deputy of curriculum, said the schools would be selected through the district’s School Performance Index.
Knudsen defended the closures, =saying that the closure of 40 schools would return $33 million into the school district’s budget.
“We aren’t closing schools, we are closing buildings,” he said, noting that the school district has lost 25 percent of its overall enrollment since the mid-nineties, mostly due to students moving to charter schools.
“We didn’t downsize to correct that,” he said.
Knudsen said that a list of the 40 schools slated for closure would be available sometime in the late summer.
During the evening, Knudsen presented a budget plan, showing residents how the school district plans to make cuts to its budget of more than $2.5 billion.
Its operating budget will be cut by $122 million, with school closures and “modernizing custodial services, maintenance and transportation” at the heart of these cuts.
The school’s personnel budget will be cut by $156 million, through a restructure of wages and the school district’s employee benefits program.
The public charters program, through its Per Pupil Payment Program will see $149 million in cuts through a seven percent reduction and three-year freeze of per pupil repayment – the state mandates that the district provide funding for charters,taken from state school funds, per student - while the budget still holds out hope that Philadelphia’s Actual Value Initiative – a proposal that could reassess home values throughout the city - could be passed by City Council.
That initiative could see an additional $94 million generated for the PSD.
“There is money available with your neighbors. Maybe it’s with you,” said Knudsen, talking about the school district’s need for additional funds through the AVI.
Lisa Haver, a former school teacher, who now lives on East Oak Lane, complained that the school district and the School Reform Commission officials had the audacity to deliver a half-baked plan that provided few answers to many of the community’s concerns.
“This is a major, major overhaul of the school district,” she said. “And we are supposed to take this whole package without knowing what it’s about…It’s like that old saying that you need to destroy a village in order to save it.”
Ron Whitehorne, a retired teacher and local resident, said he wanted to know why last week’s discussion focused on the school’s loss of funding and its dire straights in looking for new money, when the district’s annual budget is still in the billions.
“This plan is an austerity plan that says, as I see it, ‘Get used to it, because this is the best we can do,’” he said.
Yet, while elements of the overhaul may still need to be defined, Wendell Pritchett, of the School Reform Commission, countered that the transformation plan was created as a response to a changing environment, one that would put decision making power back into the hands of local schools and their principals.
“I agree with you. I think it’s a disgrace the way the state is funding education,” he said. “When you want to go to Harrisburg, I will be there with you…But, I refuse to believe that we can’t provide a quality education with 2.5 billion dollars.”
Star Staff Reporter Hayden Mitman can be contacted at 215-354-3124 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you’re going:
Representatives from the Philadelphia School District and the School Reform Commission will be meeting with residents to discuss the school district’s budget and the transformation proposal throughout the month of May.
Upcoming meetings will be held:
-Thursday, May 10 from 6 to 8 p.m. at West Philadelphia High School, 4901 Chestnut St.
-Saturday, May 12 from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at South Philadelphia High School, 2101 S. Broad St.
-Tuesday, May 15 from 6 to 8 p.m. at Northeast High School, 1601 Cottman Ave.
-Thursday, May 24 from 6 to 8 p.m., at Girls High School, 1400 W. Olney Ave.
On Wednesday, May 16, at the school district’s education center at 440 N. Broad St., at 5:30 p.m., there will be a meeting of the School Reform Commission that is open to the public.