Green's first SRC meeting: High drama, big plans

School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. (left) with Green at the meeting. The new chairman says he fully supports Hite's action plan for the schools.
School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. (left) with Green at the meeting. The new chairman says he fully supports Hite's action plan for the schools.
Posted: February 22, 2014

Dozens of cameras clicked as Bill Green walked into the room to begin his first School Reform Commission meeting. More than 100 people rose to their feet.

First, a low rumble of boos. Next, shouts.

"Whose city? Whose schools?" one person yelled.

"Our city! Our schools!" came the loud answer.

Philadelphia School District officials said Thursday night that they had an unexpected $14.2 million shortfall for this school year, and would ask for $320 million in new money for next year. And Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said he wants to open three new high schools in the fall.

But for many at the SRC meeting, the most important thing was sending Chairman Green a message: They're wary of his plans for the district, they will be watching him closely, and they will push hard against him if the situation warrants it.

"If you're friends of Gov. Corbett, you're not friends of ours," an audience member yelled, summing up the sentiments of many. Green and his fellow new SRC member, Farah Jimenez, who had a prior commitment and could not attend the meeting, were appointed by Corbett and sworn in earlier this week.

The meeting was full of moments of high drama: presentations interrupted by shouts, protesters waving signs, one speaker warning of natural disasters if the district doesn't change course. Green was given books to read and lectured about not answering questions from the public.

Khyrie Brown, an eighth grader at Blaine Academics Plus school in North Philadelphia, addressed Green sternly. The new SRC chairman "doesn't live in the 'hood," Khyrie said. "I want to tell you, we're not going to let you come in and do what you want to do."

Green has taken a hard line against the teachers' union, which is negotiating a contract with the School District. In the past, Green has advocated for unlimited expansion of charter schools and for vouchers.

The former city councilman didn't flinch Thursday night. He said that he would read the books people gave him, and would meet with anyone who wanted to talk to him. At one point, he quoted the Bible, saying he had been appointed to "set in order what remains" (Titus 1:5). He asked that he be given the opportunity to do his work.

After the meeting, Green said he had been prepared for a rough reception. But, he said, "I have a mission. I'm committed to that mission. My mission is the children of Philadelphia." Eventually, he said, his detractors will see that his goal and theirs are the same - good schools for all.

Green said he fully supports Hite's action plan, which the superintendent released earlier in the week. Centered on four main points - full funding for schools, all students reading on grade level by age 8, all students college- and career-ready, and strong principals and teachers in every school - it carries a hefty $320 million price tag for 2014-15.

But chief financial officer Matthew Stanski said Thursday night that in addition to the $320 million, which the district is seeking from city and state leaders, there's a more immediate financial burden.

The district is looking at a $14.2 million deficit for this school year, Stanski said. Higher-than-anticipated costs in such areas as charter-school payments, special education, and food service have led to the shortfall.

"We're still working to identify savings to close that gap," Stanski said. With so much already cut from the budget - many schools lack extracurricular activities, and full-time counselors and nurses - it will be tough to find any more savings, but Hite said officials would do everything they could to not touch classrooms.

"Schools can't afford to lose more resources, primarily at this time of year," he said.

Stanski said that although he hoped the district would have a balanced budget, it might have to carry the $14.2 million hole into next year.

Even so, the district will open three new neighborhood high schools next year. Hite and Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn said that even in these austere times, there must be room for innovation, particularly at the high school level.

Two of the schools - Building 21 and the U School - will be inside the old Ferguson School on North Seventh Street. The LINC (Learning in New Context) will be inside the existing Clemente Middle School on West Erie Avenue.

The schools are still being designed, but the aim is to break out of the traditional high school mold, with project-based, personalized learning environments, officials said. The combined cost was estimated at $2.5 million to $3 million.

"The genesis of this is in our strong desire to improve our high schools," Kihn said, "where we really struggle."

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