by Bill Hangley Jr.
When Superintendent William Hite sits down with Phillies star Cole Hamels later this month, it won’t be to talk baseball.
The pitcher, along with his wife and staff from the Hamels Foundation, will be trying to find out what will happen to more than $400,000 worth of playground and library equipment that the foundation has donated to three schools now slated for closure. The foundation will also be seeking assurances that future donations won’t meet a similar fate.
Hamels Foundation operations officer G-N Kang said she and other officials were “shocked and surprised” to find that three Hamels-supported schools were on the District’s list of 37 proposed closures. The schools include Bayard Taylor Elementary, whose new $317,000 playground opened last summer; Wilson Elementary, which received a $50,000 playground in 2010; and Shaw Middle School, which received a $50,000 “family resource and professional development center” for its library in 2011.
Kang said that the foundation would lobby to keep the three schools open, as well as Fairhill Elementary, which has received foundation support for adult literacy programs.
Kang said Hamels and his wife, Heidi, were “disappointed” by the closure news. A meeting is scheduled for the end of January that includes Hite, the Hamels family, and foundation staff.
Kang said the proposal to close Taylor was particularly disappointing. When foundation staff members met with District officials last spring to discuss a possible donation to Taylor, Kang said, they were assured that closure wasn’t a concern.
“When we started the approval process of doing this grant, before we even broke ground, we sat in at a number of meetings and were told that the school would not be in question of closing,” Kang said. “Was that a concern of ours going in? Of course. Was that a question that was asked on our end? Yes. Are we shocked and surprised that this school was on the list? Absolutely.”
District spokesperson Fernando Gallard confirmed the upcoming meeting between Hite and Hamels. He said that the District didn’t tell the foundation about the closure possibility last spring because nothing was yet decided.
“The list was not finalized until later that year,” Gallard said. “All the options were on the table.”
Gallard said the District is exploring how to make the best use of the donated equipment, including assessing the costs for moving it.
“That’s on the list of things we’ll have to take a closer look at,” he said. “If it means we’ll have to find new locations for the playgrounds, that’s what we’ll do. We are all working for the good of the students -- and we’re grateful for the foundation’s help.”
The foundation’s effort to save the four schools could complicate the District’s efforts to swiftly implement its closure agenda. It is one of a growing number of organizations seeking to slow or stop school closures.
“Number one, our goal is to get Bayard Taylor and the three other schools we gave grants to off the list,” she said. “It’s not to say that we’re not concerned with other schools, and other students’ lives, but these are directly in relation to sponsor dollars we’ve collected, and money Heidi and Cole have donated. We can’t battle for all of them, but … we could save the four we’ve given grants to.”
But Kang knows it will be an uphill battle. Although the final closure list won’t be confirmed until the SRC votes on it this spring, Hite has been firm that the District’s financial straits make a significant number of closings unavoidable.
“We have to take some action -- or we will have to close the District,” Hite told a crowd at a recent community meeting at Dobbins High School in North Philadelphia.
Kang said the decision about the donated equipment ultimately belongs to the District. “Legally it was a donation -- it was a gift to the School District. So at the end of the day, they have the final say,” she said.
But if the foundation can’t convince Hite to keep Taylor or the other schools open, its next goal will be to make sure any donated equipment continues to serve the city’s children, whether in its current location, as part of a charter or private school, or in a new location at another school.
“If there are other kids who are going to be benefiting from it who wouldn’t otherwise have that play yard, I wouldn’t be extremely angry,” said Kang. “What I would be extremely angry about is if it got sold off and they tore down the play yard to put up apartment complexes.”
She said the foundation knows that Hite has “a lot on his plate” and that the foundation will use its upcoming meeting to figure out how to make the best of the situation. “It’s not going to be, ‘Hey, why our school?’” Kang said. “It’s going to be, ‘Here’s the problem -- what’s the solution that’s going to make all parties happy? What’s going to make it the best transition for these kids?”
Kang also said that before the foundation upgrades any more playgrounds or libraries, it will want some assurances that this won’t happen again. The Hamels Foundation can’t comfortably solicit donations for any specific school unless it’s very confident about that school’s future, Kang said.
“I don’t know what our plans are for 2013 yet,” said Kang. “We might consider giving directly to students -- or to something that’s more mobile.”