Philadelphia School District Faces Restructuring

The Philadelphia School District is to undergo a massive restructuring in the coming months to address a $218 million shortfall for the coming year. Up to 40 low-performing, underused schools may be closed for next year with many more students shifting to charter options. More than 50,000 students have already moved from district schools to charter schools in the last decade and this has resulted in many classrooms having empty seats. The closure of the underutilized schools is projected to save $122 million in operating costs. For the future, it is anticipated that another six schools will close each year until 2017.

The budget shortfall is already more than the $186 million previously stated and may be subject to further rise if Mayor Nutter’s proposed city tax plan fails to materialize and if recent charter school rulings remain intact.

Pressing academic and safety problems “and the fact that, financially, we cannot continue in the present form of organization and operations that we have right now” require the district to change its basic structure, Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen said Monday night.

Finances are the main driving force behind the restructuring according to current leaders; the district has spent beyond its means for far too long with no previous plan to redress the imbalance.

Officials are planning to save $156 million over five years from personnel costs by restructuring benefits and wages. In that period, they are also planning on $149 million in savings from charter schools, namely through a per-pupil payment cut of 7 percent in 2013 followed by a three-year freeze at that level.

The plan, which will fundamentally alter the way that the district is organized and run, is devised by Knudsen and Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon. They still require the approval of the School Reform Commission but considering that the SRC have been closely involved with Knudsen and Nixon while they worked out the plan it seems unlikely that the proposals will end up being rejected.

The chair of the SRC’s finance committee, Feather Houstoun, is on record as saying the immediate shortfall should be closed by aggressively pursuing tax delinquents.

The budget shortfall isn’t the only recent problem with Philadelphia’s education system. Cayuga Elementary School, and its principal Evelyn Cortez, has been the public face of widespread allegations of cheating within the district as teachers were instructed to teach to the test and look ahead at future teaching material.