SRC set for high-stakes vote on 27 planned school closings

Posted: March 07, 2013

The Philadelphia school system is broke, with 53,000 empty seats and a huge stable of buildings it cannot afford to maintain.

A well-organized, ardent group of citizens - supported by the powerful teachers union - is pushing back hard against the 29 proposed school closings.

Thursday is decision day, as the five members of the School Reform Commission will meet to vote on 27 of the proposed closures and dozens more program shifts and grade changes. (Votes for two closures, proposed more recently, will be taken later.)

How high are the stakes? The president of the American Federation of Teachers is expected to be in town for a pre-vote, anti-closing rally that could draw hundreds outside the School District's headquarters on North Broad Street.

Security should be tight. Anti-closing protesters interrupted the last two SRC meetings.

If the SRC endorses even most of the proposals, the result would be among the largest mass school closings in the country, with one in eight city schools shutting its doors permanently in June.

The action was important enough to draw AFT president Randi Weingarten, who said she was "standing with the community, which is standing for its kids. Kids need allies, and community needs a voice, and Philly is proving that over and over again."

The closing plan is part of a scheme "to essentially destroy a public education system for reckless alternatives," the union chief said.

District officials deny that, saying they are attempting to save, not starve, public schools.

Weingarten will join an expected crowd of hundreds of parents, teachers, clergy, and politicians for a rally planned prior to the 5:30 p.m. SRC meeting.

"The action is to protest the closing of schools rather than fixing them, and the destabilizing of neighborhoods," Weingarten said in an interview. "We have proof of this already. We've seen it in Chicago. When you close schools, it creates unsafe situations."

Many have called for a one-year moratorium on school closings. But Mayor Nutter, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., and several SRC members have said that the district cannot continue to pay for mostly empty buildings.

Hite reiterated that in a Wednesday interview.

"This is crisis time for us," the superintendent said. The school-closing plan - which would net about $24 million in savings next year, not counting transition costs - saves only about 1 percent of the district's total budget, he said, but is just one of many changes that must happen to keep the system afloat.

"If all those things don't happen, we will have much bigger problems. We're talking about being in a place where we can't pay people or we can't open next fall," Hite said.

He disputed Weingarten's contention that closings would destabilize neighborhoods; the neighborhoods were not destabilized by the eight schools closed in June, he said.

He would like to fix all schools, he said, but the money to do so is not there, and the district must spend the funds it does have more wisely.

This week, Hite visited M.H. Stanton, whose closure will be voted on in the next few months.

"That school has music, and the school that we're talking about combining it with has art," Hite said. "We'll be able to offer students at the new school both art and music."

Commissioners will vote Thursday night on a resolution that will encompass all the changes. If an SRC member wants to pull one school out or suggest changes, he or she would have to propose amendments to that resolution.

Speakers can make their cases, too, at what figures to be a crowded meeting - two speakers per closing school, two per geographic region, and 10 on general closure topics.

"There is a security plan in place that will allow us to have a safe and orderly meeting," district spokesman Fernando Gallard said. "We are looking forward to hearing from the community as they have a chance to speak in front of the School Reform Commission."


Contact Kristen Graham

at 215-854-5146 or kgraham@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @newskag. Read her blog, "Philly

School Files," at www.philly.com/schoolfiles.

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