SRC suspends Pa. school code on closings
by Benjamin Herold
for the Notebook/WHYY’s NewsWorks
[Updated 1:30 a.m.] In an unexpected move, the School Reform Commission voted Thursday to approve a previously unannounced "walk-on" resolution to suspend a portion of the Pennsylvania Public School Code so that it can expedite its pending decision on the District's recommendation to close nine schools.
A public hearing on the closing recommendations is now scheduled for March 3, with a final vote currently scheduled for March 29.
“This is not an intention to truncate the process we’ve laid out,” said Chairman Pedro Ramos before the vote. “We’re going to continue to go through the facilities master planning process, and we’re going to consider all the feedback we’ve gotten.”
The suspended provision of state law requires a three-month window between an official public hearing on proposed public school closures and a vote to make them official. The state law creating the SRC allows that body to waive provisions of the school code.
The SRC and District have hosted 18 community meetings to gather feedback on their facilities recommendations. But the resolution to do away with the three-month waiting period caught some in the audience off guard.
“The public has had no opportunity to speak on this because the [resolutions] were not put out to the public,” said retired teacher Lisa Haver, who spoke up from the audience and was allowed to comment.
“That’s a fair, valid criticism,” acknowledged Ramos. “We’ll make every effort to move the process of getting resolutions out a lot earlier.”
Under the old SRC process of having a planning meeting and then an action meeting, there was usually a week or more between when the resolutions were introduced.
The SRC’s vote to suspend state law also highlighted the urgency of the numerous speakers who spoke out in testimony earlier in the evening in the hopes of saving their threatened schools.
"We implore you, please do not close our peaceful, nurturing, AYP-achieving school,” said Jamie Roberts, a teacher at Sheppard Elementary in Kensington
“Sheppard is a symbol of everything that’s right with this District,” she added. “Yes, it’s an old building, but it’s filled with the magic of learning.”
As has been common at the SRC for the past three months, a large contingent from E.M. Stanton also turned out. This time, they presented their latest counterproposal to the District’s closing recommendation.
Under either of the two alternatives Stanton supporters are proposing, said parent Temwa Wright, student enrollment would be increased and the school’s utilization rate would rise to 94 percent.
Wright drew laughs from the commissioners and the audience when she offered to take Commissioner Wendell Pritchett, who as chancellor of Rutgers-Camden University has been outspoken in his opposition to a proposed merger of his institution with Rowan University, out for a drink if they are both successful in their efforts to preserve their schools.
“I can relate to your frustration,” Wright told Pritchett.
State Representative W. Curtis Thomas of North Philadelphia also gave testimony in support of Harrison Elementary at 11th and Thompson Streets. In the process, he also questioned the District’s broader priorities.
“The larger question is the excessive number of schools that are being closed in North Philadelphia and the overwhelming number of charter schools that are being approved in the same target areas,” said Thomas.
Instead, District Deputy of Accountability and Educational Technology Fran Newburg and Chief Information Officer Melanie Harris presented on "Data Tools and Instructional Resources."
District officials said no make-up date has been scheduled for the staff presentation on Renaissance Schools.
The District is expected to announce a new crop of low-performing schools to be targeted for charter conversions, as well as the external "turnaround teams" that have been pre-approved to compete to manage the schools, sometime this month.
The Notebook/NewsWorks reported last week that despite its massive budget crunch, the District has been forgoing hundreds of thousands of dollars in facilities fees by allowing Renaissance operator Universal Companies to operate for free in Audenried High and Vare Middle schools. The SRC heard testimony critical of that arrangement from outspoken teacher Hope Moffett, who ran into trouble with the District a year ago over her protest of the move to turn Audenried over to Universal.