School Reform Commission shuts down 23, saves 4 schools

TOM GRALISH / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Germantown High advocates stand in support of the school at Thursday's School Reform Commission meeting. The SRC voted to shut down the school.
TOM GRALISH / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Germantown High advocates stand in support of the school at Thursday's School Reform Commission meeting. The SRC voted to shut down the school.
Posted: March 08, 2013

THE SCHOOL Reform Commission voted Thursday night to close 23 district schools, opting at the 11th hour to keep four schools open during an emotional meeting highlighted by human barricades, 18 arrests and plenty of pleas to save public schools.

Many audience members wept when the SRC voted to close their schools.

"I think they shot them down as if they were in a firing line," said Colleen Grelis, a teacher at George W. Pepper Middle School, which, like the others on the closure list, will close at the end of the school year. "No one on the SRC has come to Pepper to see what we had.

"It's going to be chaos. They're just hurting kids."

Tears of joy, however, streamed when the SRC voted to keep four schools open. The schools that were saved are: T.M. Peirce Elementary in North Philadelphia, Roosevelt Middle in East Germantown, Taylor Elementary in Hunting Park and Paul Robeson High in West Philadelphia, which had a recent $1 million upgrade to its heating system.

"I'm happy that T.M. Peirce is going to stay open with the hard work of myself and other people in the community," said Antione Little, father of two students at the school.

District Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. walked the route last week from Peirce on Cambria Street near 23rd to Rhodes at 29th and Clearfield streets to see what it would be like for students at their new school.

"You know what I think should have happened? I think Dr. Hite should have gone to more of these schools and did the same thing he did at T.M. Peirce," Little said.

Public-schools advocate Helen Gym said the SRC's decision "seemed arbitrary."

"Any of the reasons they voted to keep the other ones open could have applied to a half-dozen schools. The reasons why they chose some and not others was baffling to me, and I think would be to anyone who saw the [data]," Gym said.

The chapter on these closures may be far from over. J. Whyatt Mondesire, president of the Philadelphia branch of the NAACP, said his group would consider legal action against the school district. Some critics of the closure plan have said that minority children are disproportionately affected.

SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos said that Thursday night's decision was necessary because of longtime inaction by the district, which had to borrow $300 million this year just to pay its bills. He said he had never understood the term "kicking the can down the road" until he returned to the district and was confronted by "a wall of cans."

"It's heartwrenching to be in this position," Ramos said.

Most people who addressed Ramos and his fellow commissioners had little sympathy for them.

"A vote to close schools tonight is just uninformed and immoral," said the Rev. Alyn Waller, senior pastor with the Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in East Mount Airy.

The fiery meeting was standing-room only, filled with teachers, public-school advocates, parents, students and district workers.

Many speakers aimed their frustrations at Hite and the SRC. One woman speaking on behalf of University City High School, the Rev. Pamela Williams, got the crowd clapping and standing up when she questioned the district's contracts and demanded to see how much money was being spent.

The crowd roared when she said the $3 million to replace the school's roof could have been done for cheaper by a company "at 52nd and Market."

Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell told the commissioners: "If one really searches one's mind and one's heart, all of you on the SRC has to know closing is wrong."

Before the meeting began, hundreds of people gathered in front of district headquarters carrying signs protesting school closings and proposed PFT cuts. Helicopters flew overhead and city police blocked access to Broad Street between Spring Garden and Callowhill. Overflow seating was set up in the building's lobby.

Several groups blocked the two entrances into the auditorium to prevent the five SRC members from entry.

At one point, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the national teachers union, was locked arm in arm with four others to surround a school officer standing guard.

Shortly before the meeting was to start at 5:30 p.m., police moved in and arrested one group of protesters. A few minutes later, they came for Weingarten's group.

The labor leader and 17 others from various advocacy groups were arrested, according to Andi Perez of Youth United for Change. Police public affairs did not return calls Thursday night to confirm the charges.

George Ricchezza, leader of the 1201 District of the 32BJ SEIU, which represents school-service employees, called Weingarten's arrest "despicable," adding that he was "ashamed to be a school-district employee."

Two schools, Beeber Middle School and M.H. Stanton Elementary School, are also slated for closure but will be voted on by the SRC at a later date.

On Twitter: @ReginaMedina

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