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School closings timeline a sticky issue

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    Photo: Oscar Wang

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by Dale Mezzacappa and Oscar Wang
 

School Reform Commission chair Pedro Ramos told community members in South Philadelphia Thursday night that the District is working to make its final school closings decision “in as timely a way as possible.”

A big message from parents and others at the meeting – again dominated by people fighting the planned closure of E.M. Stanton Elementary School – was that they want to know soon what is happening so they know what they are up against and can plan for the next school year.

The District has a dilemma – it wants to make its final decision soon, but under the school code must have a three-month wait between the formal hearing on any closures and the official SRC vote. Neither the hearing nor the final vote has yet been scheduled, and the end of the school year is less than five months away.

The SRC has the power to suspend the school code. But that could draw a legal challenge.

Sources indicated that the option is nevertheless under active consideration – if members feel that the public engagement process has been conducted with integrity and it can be done without breaking faith with the community.

The meeting Thursday night was the 15th public hearing on the District’s school closure plans held around the city, and the third in South Philadelphia. Altogether, 17 will have been held between mid-November and February 15.

Ramos hinted at the legal issues around the timeline in his remarks to the 70 or so persons present.

“One thing we hope to get clarity on soon is the timing issue,” he said. “There are timetables provided in the school code, but I’ve also heard something about common sense. We all as partners have to make decisions for our children in time. I don’t like decisions taken away from me as a parent. You want to do the best for your child. I don’t want that ability taken away because we made our decision too late.”

The District has a goal of “rightsizing” its aging physical plant to respond more efficiently to demographic shifts around the city and growing charter enrollment, which have left many buildings underutilized. In November, it announced plans to close nine schools by September and consolidate several more.

Danielle Floyd, who is heading the facilities master plan process for the District, also told the group that there are “technicalities” to be worked out around the schedule, which she said requires a “cooling-off period” between the statutory hearing on the SRC’s decision and its formal vote.

At the January 19 SRC meeting, Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky informally laid out a tentative schedule of a hearing later on either Feb. 25 or March 3, and a vote on March 29. That timing would represent a clear violation of the  90-day requirement. Floyd said that the SRC has asked its general counsel for a legal opinion on the issue.

Said Ramos, “I don’t know how [the timing issue] will be reconciled, but I hear [the concerns].”

At Thursday’s meeting, people with the distinctive yellow Supporters of Stanton shirts accounted for more than half the attendees. Some have been present at every meeting so far.

Ramos said that he appreciated their doggedness, but remarked that he picked up a sense of “fatigue.” At the same time, the group continues to do its own research and challenge the District’s rationale and data regarding Stanton.

Mark Scott, who lives a block away from the school and wants to send his son there, said that he and his partners in a real estate firm calculated a much more robust population growth in the neighborhood than the District's estimates.

Scott said that instead of 3 to 4 percent growth, growth was actually closer to 14 percent. Growth in the 0-5 age range is outpacing that of older children, he said.

Gerri Graves said that her granddaughter attends a Catholic school that is slated for closure and that she is counting on sending the child to Stanton.

“That’s my public school choice,” she said.

The Stanton group is finalizing a counterproposal to the District for keeping the school open. Leaders said they expect to have it done by the end of the week.

This story is a product of a reporting partnership on the District’s facilities master plan between PlanPhilly and the Notebook. The project is funded by a grant from the William Penn FoundationFollow our coverage of the facilities master plan community meetings, and discuss school-specific issues in our forum.

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