The School District of Philadelphia has been planning for much of the last year to close, consolidate, or reconfigure dozens of schools. It’s a massive, politically charged undertaking with potentially dramatic implications for communities all across the city. Interest in the District’s plans is high, as evidenced by the turnout at dozens of community meetings held since last fall.
But when asked – by parents, by teachers, by reporters, and even by the mayor – to share information on which schools are being considered for action, the District’s answer has been, “We’re not ready yet.” Officials have not floated a single proposal as to what might happen to individual schools.
Many of us have concluded that the District is consciously keeping its plan under wraps for as long as possible.
That’s why the Notebook recently made a sensitive judgment call to publish a confidential, draft District document that details more than two dozen school closing proposals.
Predictably, our decision to publish has led to criticism from some District and city officials over the past week.
Nevertheless, we stand by our call. Parents and community members, who know their schools well, should be involved early on in the planning about school closings.
Some people close to the process apparently agree, because on June 24, we received a photocopy of a confidential report from the School District’s facilities master plan (FMP) process. Titled “Preliminary FMP Options Report” and dated March 18, 2011, the 35-page draft document and accompanying charts lay out detailed proposals for a comprehensive plan to downsize the system’s enormous inventory of aging buildings. They include 84 specific examples of possible school closings, consolidations, boundary and grade changes, and new construction.
Before publishing, we took seriously our responsibility to come to an independent, ethical judgment as to whether publishing this confidential material would benefit the general good. We also authenticated the document with the District.
We published it along with an article extensively quoting District statements that the proposals are not final, do not reflect current thinking, and will look different when presented to the School Reform Commission in October.
Despite including those qualifiers, we heard objections to our decision from the District and even the mayor’s office.
During a recent appearance on Fox 29 News, District Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery dismissed our coverage as “literally speculation,” contending that the document was nothing more than “scratch thoughts.”
Read the detailed document for yourself and you’ll see that Nunery’s claim is, as he might say, laughable. The preliminary plan clearly reflects a year’s hard work by a team of District consultants from the URS Corporation on how to downsize the District’s inventory of buildings.
Yes, they do intend for their recommendations to eventually go through a round of community meetings this fall before any school closing decisions are made.
But we at the Notebook have repeatedly questioned whether the District is delaying the announcement of its specific recommendations for school closings for as long as possible. There is a school of thought that this is the best way to minimize controversy: by cramming public discussion of dozens of proposals into the narrowest timeframe allowable under the state law governing school closings – three months. We have never gotten any indication that the District intends otherwise.
Public patience with that kind of approach is worn thin after three previous rounds of meetings, in which the District was slow to release school-specific information and carefully avoided any discussion about which schools should be closed. That’s why parents like Jennifer Cullen, the Home and School President of Fitzpatrick Elementary in Northeast Philadelphia, described the process as having “wasted eight hours of my life.”
Perhaps if the District had demonstrated more commitment to a transparent public process, our decision to publish a confidential document would have been more difficult.
But this administration has not earned the public’s trust that it will act for the greater good when it comes to school closings. In running up a $629 million budget shortfall, the District has also created a “trust deficit,” evidenced by widespread calls for more transparency.
For example, the budget fiasco recently prompted Mayor Nutter to fire off a nine-page letter to the District demanding more information about its finances and decision-making, information the mayor promised to make available to the public. He specifically requested any documents and consultant reports relating to the facilities plan. The District publicly agreed and signed a much-touted “education accountability agreement” – and then its officials promptly withheld the preliminary facilities plan from the “large box” of documents provided to the city. Somewhere along the way, the mayor apparently told the District privately that it was okay to disregard his request.
What kind of accountability is that?
City Council members also requested more detailed information about the facilities planning process during the city’s contentious school budget negotiations. District officials sidestepped their questions, again acting as if the preliminary plan did not exist.
In this context, we believe that publishing the leaked document filled a much-needed gap that a range of Philadelphians have been trying to fill for months.
Philadelphia’s school system can potentially be made stronger if some schools are closed, and we applaud the District for its apparent willingness to take on a tough task that other administrations have avoided. School closings can be contentious and messy.
But it certainly won’t go smoothly when the public feels disrespected by the process. Right now, that’s what’s happening, largely because of the Ackerman administration’s apparent doubts about whether ordinary folks are capable of taking part in a constructive dialogue about how to downsize the school system.
Parents and community members are likely to have valuable insights and even better ideas. An inclusive process is the best way to manage the citywide school closings and consolidations that are looming. Now that some of the District’s ideas are out in the open, we hope that a real dialogue can finally begin.