Inquirer Editorial: Hite right to adjust plans

Quanisha Smith of Action Now pointed out flaws in the closure plan. RON TARVER / Staff Photographer
Quanisha Smith of Action Now pointed out flaws in the closure plan. RON TARVER / Staff Photographer
Posted: February 18, 2013

Philadelphians have gotten used to rallying to save public schools targeted for closure - typically to no avail.

In the face of the latest round of proposed closings, they made the familiar arguments that some of the 37 schools on the list should not be. Only this time, someone at the top listened.

In a refreshing and welcome change of leadership style for the district, Superintendent William R. Hite has shown flexibility and a willingness to embrace alternative proposals.

Even if the final list or number of schools changes, though, the district cannot afford to turn back from closing schools. Faced with a mounting budget deficit and 53,000 more classroom seats than students, the nearly broke school system has little choice but to rightsize itself. The district estimates that the closings would save $28 million annually.

But the public has given Hite plenty to chew on before the School Reform Commission's vote on the plan, scheduled for next month. The district has heard from more than 4,000 people, and more hearings on the subject are scheduled. They have pointed out real flaws in the plan, such as recently upgraded facilities that are targeted for closing, as well as serious concerns about crowding and safety.

Hite has acknowledged that some of the nearly three dozen proposals submitted by activists, educators, and others would improve on the plan the district announced last month. He said some changes would be made as a result, and he is expected to release a revised list of closings this week.

That would be in contrast with last year, when district administrators did not alter a more modest downsizing plan in response to public input. (The School Reform Commission did ultimately make some changes on its way to closing eight schools.)

Hite should be commended for taking a deliberative approach to an emotional issue. It should give the public a measure of assurance that the closings will be carried out fairly and carefully.

Some critics of the plan have asked for a yearlong moratorium to allow more analysis of the impact of the closings. They worry that the downsizing will disproportionately affect minority students who will be transferred from one struggling school to another. The district is 55 percent black, but nearly 80 percent of the students whose schools will be closed are African American.

Hite must continue to allay lingering public concerns about safety, transportation, and academics. But he must also continue to stand his ground on the need for closings. For years, the district has delayed making unpopular decisions about shuttering schools as enrollment has dwindled. The coming closings are part of the district's first comprehensive facilities plan in 15 years.

Even after Hite makes adjustments to the plan, opposition will undoubtedly continue. But the district must press on.

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