It has not been a easy couple of months for the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, the body in charge of overseeing the overhaul of the city's public school system. Just a few weeks ago, the commission had to issue $300 million in bonds merely to cover its operating expenses for the rest of the year, and just last week it voted to suspend a portion of the state public school code so it can move faster to shutter schools and place a cap on charter school enrollment, all with the aim to save money.
Commission chairman Pedro Ramos said that the move was necessary because the district is running out of funds. To have such decisions comply with the code could mean that the school district would carry up to $1 billion in debt at the conclusion of the five year turnaround plan. He said that the vote was taken to give district officials "flexibility."
The choice to suspend the code is only one of the powers given to the commission by the state. Others include the ability to cancel contracts if the district finds itself in fiscally dire circumstances. The one that has been the most controversial and which provides the commission with the most leverage is the power to force contract terms onto the city's education-related unions.
Ramos said that suspending the code was necessary because charter school expansion costs the district a great deal of money.
The charter cap is particularly important. In the past, charter schools in the city have not expanded unless the SRC gave them permission to do so. But a court challenge by the Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School threw that convention out the window, and, technically, charters can expand without SRC approval.
Ramos added that the suspension didn't mean that the district would see no charter expansions at all. He said that the move allows the district to meet charters at a negotiation table over their expansion plans and protects the district from any kind of expensive surprises.
The SRC also voted to sell three vacant buildings. The former John Paul Jones Middle School Annex on Amber Street in Kensington was sold to Elm City Capital and Richmond Mills for $250,000; the old Simon Muhr School on Germantown Avenue in North Philadelphia was sold to Philadelphia Suburban Development Corp. for $150,000; and the former Rudolph S. Walton School on North 28th Street in North Philadelphia went to KIPP Philadelphia Charter for $320,000.