Philly schools chief: No school closings recommended for this year

DAVID SWANSON / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Hite: "It's not to say that we will not close schools in the future."
DAVID SWANSON / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Hite: "It's not to say that we will not close schools in the future."
Posted: January 12, 2014

CITING CONCERNS about stability and consistency, Philadelphia School District Superintendent William Hite said yesterday that he will not recommend any school closings this year.

The announcement follows 30 school closings in the past two years, including 24 a year ago, to address steadily declining enrollment and underutilized buildings.

In announcing his decision during a conference call with reporters, Hite said his focus was on bolstering existing neighborhood schools.

"The primary factor is we could not guarantee, based on where space was available, we would be improving the academic environment for children," he said.

District schools are operating at 74 percent capacity, compared with 67 percent last year. The goal of the Facilities Master Plan, launched before Hite's arrival, was 85 to 90 percent utilization.

The superintendent said yesterday's decision was not based on the district's finances or utilization rates. He acknowledged that previous closings may have resulted in some students going to lower-performing schools "because we used utilization [rates] last year."

Hite said not closing additional schools this year would have financial ramifications on the district's five-year plan, although he would not elaborate. He also did not rule out future closings, saying: "It's not to say that we will not close schools in the future. I'm just choosing not to make that decision this year."

A report by the bond-rating firm Moody's earlier this week said further service cuts could lead students to go elsewhere and cause the agency to lower the district's rating, which would make borrowing money more expensive.

"That report actually validates why this and other decisions are so important," Hite said. "It also validates why we have to continue to manage our charter-school enrollment. It also validates why the negotiations with the [Philadelphia Federation of Teachers] are so important," he said.

Hite said he would offer a second action plan to bolster schools in the next two or three weeks.

Students, teachers, elected officials and public-school advocates all applauded the announcement.

"I think that stabilizing the school district and focusing on the quality of the schools that we have is the right kind of leadership," said Susan Gobreski, a public-school parent and executive director of Education Voters PA, an advocacy organization.

City Council President Darrell Clarke called the news a relief.

"The mass school closings last year hit my North Philadelphia district particularly hard, and I witnessed firsthand the trauma and hardship not having a neighborhood school inflicted on children and families," Clarke said in a written statement. "We must all remain focused on long-term, sustainable funding and educational strategies for our schools."

On Twitter: @ChroniclesofSol

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