School closings need close look

Posted: January 24, 2013

The Philadelphia School District faces major challenges as both a financial and an educational endeavor. For the past 15 years, the district has spent beyond its means, and its students have been flooding into the burgeoning charter-school sector, drawn by the promise of better, safer schools. Whether because of poor economic conditions or bad policy decisions, the district's finances have deteriorated into a full-blown state of emergency, with the entire $2.3 billion enterprise on the verge of collapse (or at least that's what the public has been told). It was only by borrowing $300 million that the district was able to operate this school year.

In short, very real financial issues have led to the latest proposal to fundamentally change the structure and scope of the district. As city controller, I have a responsibility to evaluate the soundness of the plan.

My office is analyzing Superintendent William Hite's proposal to close 37 district-run schools, which will ultimately displace thousands of students, and which could have devastating repercussions for many neighborhoods. In a prior review of vacant school facilities, my office found that schools that were closed and remained vacant for many years had become havens for illegal and dangerous activity. In the most egregious case, a vacant school was ravaged by a four-alarm fire that put its neighbors and the city's firefighters at risk.

The imminent school closures will affect 15,000 students who are disproportionately concentrated in some of Philadelphia's poorest neighborhoods. In a district that is 55 percent black, nearly 80 percent of the affected students are African American.

Questionable benefits

The School District claims that the proposal will benefit its finances in two ways: by yielding $28 million from the sale of surplus property, and by generating $33 million in annual savings in operating expenses. My office has asked the district to provide additional data to help us evaluate these claims.

Especially in light of recent tax increases to provide more funding for the ailing district, Philadelphians have a right to an accurate accounting of the expenses associated with decommissioning, maintaining, and securing sites; moving and storing district property; making improvements to the schools receiving displaced students; and transferring students, including the costs of transporting them to new schools and ensuring their safety.

If recent downsizing efforts by other districts are any indication, the Philadelphia School District's projected savings may not materialize. In six cities examined by a 2011 Pew study, most of the districts fell short of their projected savings by 20 to 40 percent. In Washington, audits revealed that district officials underestimated the costs of closing and consolidating schools by as much as 50 percent.

Higher purpose

We also need to know whether the district is giving enough weight to the academic performance of the schools targeted for closing. Studies suggest that relocated students show no enduring academic gains unless they move to schools that are considerably higher-performing than the ones they leave. One-third of the proposed transfers will send students to a school that has fared worse on the district's school performance index.

This raises a question: Will this huge disruption in the lives of so many families and communities lead to better educational outcomes? Is the district cutting costs for its own sake or for a higher purpose?

On one hand, district officials are leading us to believe that these drastic measures are needed to address the precarious financial situation they are facing. On the other, they are suggesting that these school closings will free up money for programs such as art and music classes. Which is it? Before any final decision is made to close any school, it is critical that all the facts and information presented are consistent.

Philadelphians deserve an honest public debate about any proposal to dramatically reshape the public education system. We need an independent evaluation of these proposals, and that can happen only if all the data supporting this plan are released. Only then can we assess its educational and financial soundness.


Alan Butkovitz is the Philadelphia city controller. He can be reached via info@philadelphiacontroller.org.

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