Hite: No school closings in 2014

Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said he must consider the academic climate before closing additional schools.
Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said he must consider the academic climate before closing additional schools.
Posted: January 12, 2014

No Philadelphia public schools will close in 2014, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said Friday.

Last year, the School Reform Commission permanently shuttered 24 schools, and officials warned that more closings were coming.

But after studying the situation, "we could not guarantee based on what space was available that we would be improving the academic environment for children" if schools were closed, Hite said. "Even in a process like school closing, I have to be in a place where I'm making that recommendation based on improving the academic environment for those students."

Last year's closings resulted in some students moving from higher-performing schools to lower-performing ones because building utilization was a driving factor, Hite said.

But the recent no-closing decision was formed in part by a clear message from parents, teachers and school communities shaken by the recent large-scale closings, the superintendent said.

Now, "we must focus on bolstering existing neighborhood schools," Hite said, adding that the district should spend 80 percent to 90 percent of its time on improving schools.

The district's precarious finances and the tens of thousands of students it has lost to charter schools in the last decade drove closings in 2013. This year, academics had to override finances, and the five-year plan will be adjusted, Hite said.

Still, more school closings are possible, he warned. Enrollment is still trending down - the district has 131,000 students this year, down from about 137,000 last year.

And while officials also said there would be no program relocations in 2014, they did not rule out grade configuration changes.

Before the 2013 closings, the district's overall building utilization rate was 67 percent. It is now 74 percent. The district had hoped to get utilization for most of its schools at 80 percent or better, but logistics are a problem.

"Space may be needed in the Northeast, but there's ample space in the southeastern part of the city," Hite said. "We are challenged with the distribution of schools that have available space."

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan, a strong opponent of closures, cheered Hite's decision.

"We can only improve education in the city by strengthening our neighborhood schools, not closing them or handing them over to charter companies and other private interests," Jordan said in a statement.

Priya Johnson, an organizer with the student group Youth United for Change, called the announcement "a victory for young people across the city."

Hite said he was not sure how the news of no new school closings would play in Harrisburg, where lawmakers have urged district reforms and viewed last year's closings favorably.

But he said he hoped that district efforts to cut staff, programs, and central administration over the last 18 months would speak for themselves.

"What other organization - public or private - has downsized so significantly?" Hite asked. "It's not like we're sitting here wasting money."

Hite said he had read a recent report by Moody's Investor Service that warned that further program cuts could threaten the district's bond rating. The decision to close no schools in 2014 had already been made when the document was issued, but the Moody's information validated it, he said.

Within a few weeks, Hite will issue a second action plan - his first was released in early 2013 - with specifics on how the district will improve schools, the superintendent said.


kgraham@phillynews.com

215-854-5146 @newskag

www.inquirer.com/phillyschoolfiles

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