In Philadelphia, Public Will Have a Say on School Closures

The Philadelphia School District is responding to controversy over the process used to close 8 public schools in the city last year by asking the community for input as it looks to shutter another 40 schools this June.

The Philadelphia Inquirer is reporting that since questions were raised regarding the process used by district officials to select the 8 schools eventually targeted for closure, including putting together a list before allowing public comment, this time around the constituents will get their say first.

Danielle Floyd, who is overseeing the process for the district, initially said that the PSD leaders wanted to gather opinions of their staff prior to going public, which is how the internal list was put together. This time around, there will be no list — the district will start with board meetings at which the public will be able to air their thoughts.

“Folks wanted to understand at a high level, at a policy level, the types of trade-offs about the decisions we were making,” Floyd said. “We didn’t want to assume anything; we wanted to ask them what they were thinking.”
Floyd said that this time, there is no internal list of schools that might be targeted.

The first such meeting took place earlier this week at the district headquarters. The 70 attendees, made up of parents, community leaders and education advocates, were handed multi-button devices to allow them to answer multiple-choice questions in real time. The questions ranged from the importance of having schools within walking distance to the effectiveness of maintaining separate middle schools rather than split the city schools into K-8 and high schools.

The closures are necessitated by the growing popularity of charter schools in Philadelphia. The district has lost nearly 40,000 students to charters over the course of the several years, and now finds it difficult to continue shouldering the expense of buildings and classrooms that no longer have any kids to fill them. According to estimates cited by the Inquirer, the empty seats cost the district more than $30 million — something that PSD, which had to issue a $300 million bond last year to meet payroll, can no longer afford to do.

“Doing nothing is not an option,” said Thomas Knudsen, the district’s chief recovery officer.

School Reform Commissioner Wendell Pritchett agreed.

The $30-million-plus “is wasted money,” Pritchett said. “That is money that could be used for hiring music teachers and art teachers, and improving after-school programs, and doing all the things that our children deserve.”

In addition to Tuesday’s meeting, the district has scheduled 4 more to take place before October 13th. The district will also be soliciting feedback via social media websites like Facebook and Twitter.