Inquirer Editorial: Too few schools targeted for closure

Posted: November 10, 2011

When the Philadelphia School District announced plans to close some of its aging and unneeded facilities, everyone waited for the other shoe to drop. It landed last week with a soft thud.

Only nine schools were targeted for closing - and none for another year. Faced with budget woes and declining enrollment, the district needs a much more aggressive plan to streamline operations and yield savings. As acting School Reform Commission Chairman Wendell Pritchett said, "We need to do more."

With 70,000 empty seats citywide, the district needs to operate in a less costly, more efficient manner. But closing nine schools would shed only about 14,000 empty seats, a far less ambitious goal than the 40,000 seats officials wanted to lose by 2014.

With 155,000 students enrolled, district buildings are about 67 percent occupied. Experts say the ideal occupation rate is 85 percent.

The population decline will likely continue as students flee failing traditional schools to enroll in charters. In the past decade, the district has lost more than 50,000 pupils.

Each school closing could save up to $1 million. But district officials have taken too conservative an approach by inititally targeting five elementary, two middle, and two high schools for closure. All but one closing would occur next fall, with more closings likely in later years.

There hasn't been a large-scale closing of city schools since 1981, but this plan falls short in scope and will take too long. If the closings are approved, the district would be at 71 percent operating capacity. That's a good start. However, in order to save money and maximize resources, the district must speed up the closure and consolidation of schools that are already mostly empty.

After choosing a new superintendent, figuring out how to "right-size" the district and get rid of excess schools may be one of the biggest challenges facing the revamped School Reform Commission, which has lost four members, three in recent weeks.

Some of the other recommendations made last week have merit, such as changing the grades that each school serves. Currently, there are 25 different grade configurations in the district. Changing that would not only reduce the number of empty seats, but help to standardize more schools.

Not surprising, the possible school closings and grade changes have drawn opposition from parents who want their children to attend neighborhood schools. They will get to express their feelings in public hearings before changes are made next year. But the SRC must remember its goal is greater efficiency and economy.

Closings should occur within a coordinated plan with city officials to keep vacant buildings from becoming eyesores, but more schools should be closed.

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