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Civil rights complaint filed over Philadelphia school closings

By the Notebook on Oct 3, 2012 03:50 PM
Photo: Benjamin Herold/NewsWorks

Theodore Stones speaks to the rally outside School District headquarters Wednesday morning

By Benjamin Herold
for WHYY/NewsWorks, a Notebook news partner

Seeking a moratorium on dozens of planned school closings, community organizing group Action United filed a federal civil rights complaint Wednesday against the School District of Philadelphia.

The eight schools approved for closure last spring serve a disproportionately high percentage of African American students, resulting in a negative "disparate impact" on the city's African American communities, argued Action United member Theodore Stones during a Wednesday morning rally outside District headquarters.

As a result, Stones said, the District should halt its stated plan to close several dozen more schools over the next few years.

"The School Reform Commission says that up to 64 more schools will be closed over the next several years. ... That by itself will be a disaster," Stones said. "If the trend of closing disproportionately African American schools continues on such a large scale, calling it a disaster becomes an understatement."

District officials said they could not comment on pending litigation.

Title VI of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits agencies that receive federal funds, including school districts, from discriminating on the basis of race, color and national origin.

In its complaint to the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, Action United argued that the eight schools approved for closure last spring serve a higher percentage of minority students and students with disabilities than the districtwide average. Students at those schools will be negatively impacted, the group argues, because they will lose their neighborhood schools and be required to travel long distances to new schools that will not necessarily be higher-performing.

"The District has not demonstrated why closing schools in predominantly African American neighborhoods with higher numbers of students with disabilities serves any educational necessity that could not be accomplished through less discriminatory alternatives," reads the complaint.

Groups from a number of other cities, including Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, and Washington, have filed similar complaints in recent months.

Jitu Brown of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization in Chicago said those groups have so far gotten little traction, however.

"While the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights takes their time, children are being put in harm's way and communities are being destabilized," Brown said.

In Philadelphia, the District is moving forward with its plan to close dozens more schools by next fall. District leaders say they can save as much as $35 million per year by shedding the "stranded costs" associated with underutilized buildings.

At Wednesday's rally, Action United members challenged that estimate, citing the experience of the Washington school system, where savings from 23 school closures in 2008 were offset by related costs that were much higher than expected.

"We do not agree that these closures will necessarily be a solution to the crisis," said Darcella Cross.

A 2011 report by the Pew Charitable Trusts' Philadelphia Research Initiative found that widespread school closings in other cities generally failed to generate the expected savings.

Members of Action United also criticized the SRC for not allowing the public to weigh in on which schools should be closed, instead limiting input to opinions on broad options and overall impact.

But the focus of the formal complaint filed by the group is the disproportionate negative impact they say school closings will have on minority students' communities.

Marsha Moore of Southwest Philadelphia said that the answer is to invest more resources in struggling, predominantly African American schools, not to close them.

"If you make schools better, you make the neighborhood better," said Moore, mother of a 9th grader at Communications Tech High School. "There's a ripple effect."

Action United member Carmen Wallace has a 7th grader at Austin Meehan Middle School in Northeast Philadelphia.

"I'm not even worried about my daughter's school being closed, because the community there, the Caucasians that are there, they're not going to let it happen," she said.

"It's not going to affect any schools out in the Northeast. It's only going to affect North Philly, South Philly. ... That's the sad part about it."


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Comments (15)

Submitted by Poogie (not verified) on October 3, 2012 6:52 pm

The suit has absolutely no chance of doing anything other than making a legal fee for some lawyer.
Let us think about how the complaint sounds to the Judge. 1. Black dominated SRC discriminates against black people. @. Black administrators being unfair to the black people who put them in power.

Not a narrative that grabs people and certainly not a good narrative in a Civil Rights Action alleging discrimination based upon race.

Maybe the effort should be directed at changing the people driving this district to a 100% charter model.

Submitted by Joe (not verified) on October 4, 2012 4:27 pm

Of course, Eileen is right and all clear thinking people , know it. They're bought and paid for drones of big business and so is Nutter. It;s not about black or white, it IS about green and we all know it.
At least this group is taking some action. That's a hell of a lot better than the PFT playing hang dog while our schools are being destroyed. I've been posting here for almost 3 years that Randi Weingarten is not the friend of traditional public schools, at least not now, and Jerry Jordan seems to be of the same ilk. Tell me where I'm wrong.

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on October 4, 2012 9:48 am

First, two of the five SRC members are black and one is on leave, hardly black "domination."    Secondl, and more importantly,the consequences for the African American community as a whole is what  this is all about, not  the skin color of the elected officials and administrators who are in charge.   Last night an African American  President debated a ultra right white man without once mentioning the desparate conditions of poverty in our urban centers which disporportionately impact people of color.  School closures, privatization and cutting spending on education in poor communiites is a 21st century version of Jim Crow. 

Submitted by Poogie (not verified) on October 4, 2012 9:40 am

You cannot really argue that the Black community has not input in these decisions.

Look I am against what is happening and I am only pointing out that a lawsuit is not going to remedy it.

Submitted by tom-104 on October 4, 2012 10:12 am

It greatly weakens this case to base it on ethnicity. Implied in the statement that schools being closed "serve a disproportionately high percentage of African American students, resulting in a negative "disparate impact" on the city's African American communities" is that school closings are OK as long as they are done equitably.

The fight should be to fund schools equitably in all communities. Governor Corbett deliberately targeted low income communities for the largest budget cuts. This should be the basis for the law suit.

"Poor schools hit hardest by budget cuts in Pennsylvania"

Submitted by eileen difranco (not verified) on October 4, 2012 11:14 am

I think it's time to say what is perfectly clear to the parents of Action United. The SRC, regardless of color, are bought people. They have been purchased by the business community which is trying to close public schools and sell them off to the highest bidder. We have an African American board member, W. Prichett, referring to schools with children as "portfolios." You don't hear board members in the suburbs referring to children as "portfolios." Meanwhile, the schools are being red lined by having essential services cut: librarians, nurses, school police, etc. to insure that they fail. And in many cases, leadership at every level is to blame. There is a reason why all of the "failing" schools are located in largely poor, African American areas. The poor rarely complain. I heard Jeremy Nowalk speak at Enon two weeks ago. Nowalk, as you know, is the chair of the Wm Penn Foundation which paid for and imported a group from Boston to figure out what's wrong with the schools. Nowalk said at the meeting that neither he nor the group ever consulted with stakeholders in any school community, white or black to determine their plan of action. So what we have is an outside group deciding upon a course of action in consultation with the unelected, unaccountable business community. The community meetings were held as an after-thought when school nurses demonstrated outside of 440 for 23 weeks and called attention to both the red lining process and the lack of accountability on the part of the SRC and the Wm. Penn Foundation. The State and the City claim that there is no money, And yet they are willing to spend millions of scarce dollars on unproven charter schools and vouchers. Black communities have already been devastated by the closure of supermarkets and churches. And now the SRC wants to close their schools rather than taking a good look and trying to figure out what made one school fail while another like Sheppard, succeeds. Why not use the "Sheppard Model" rather than an outside Boston one which will further harm already vulnerable neighborhoods?

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on October 4, 2012 2:06 pm

Tom, I disagree with you that pointing out the disparate impact on African Americans implies that they would be OK if whites were impacted equally.   Just like we can support affirmative action and full employment at the same time, we can and should point out the impact of racism in school closures while opposing this policy generally as a class battle.   The role of racism as a strategy to divide and conquer is alive and well among Governor Corbett and his ilk and we ignore it at our peril.  

Submitted by tom-104 on October 4, 2012 3:54 pm

I am not saying that the history of this country, and the racism that has plagued our society for centuries, should not be part of our understanding and strategy to fight school closures. But basing the suit on what schools should be closed based on their ethnic composition is a diversion from the fight against all school closures and the inequitable funding of public school districts which is based on the income of the families in each district.

Placing ethnicity, or religion, or gender ahead of class as the fundamental division in society is part of the divide and conquer that the 1% use to get the 99% to fight over crumbs.

Submitted by ConcernedRoxParent (not verified) on October 4, 2012 1:44 pm

The bottom line is the PSD cannot afford to run school buildings that are currently serving 200 kids, when the building can hold 600. It just is not cost effective.

Submitted by eileen difranco (not verified) on October 4, 2012 2:45 pm

I am not disputing that. What I am disputing is closing what have been labeled "failing" schools. No one is asking why the schools are failing except for some general, unproven assumption that the teachers are "bad." What goes into making a school like Sheppard, an old facility in one of the poorest sections of the city, "good?" What turned around Stanton and Lea Schools? What made Roxborough High turn around? Why go to Boston when we just have to look in our own back yard? Why not talk to the stakeholders?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 4, 2012 2:07 pm

Excellent points Eileen.
We all know "why not talk to the stakeholders"
Because the answers the stakeholders give are inconvenient to those seeking to privatize our public schools.

Submitted by Joe (not verified) on October 4, 2012 4:26 pm

Not only are the answers inconvenient, they are also TOTALLY ignored and that's because WE have not organized under 1 flag but rather in small pieces that they just swat aside. Unless we join together in a big way, the 1% ers will have their way with us. People like Corbett are all business with no sense of proportion and we need to fight them from that frame of reference, conceding nothing.

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on October 4, 2012 4:09 pm

Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools does want to hear from community stakeholders as part of a process of forging an alternative plan to the SRC's program of privatization, school closures and austerity.   Here's the link to complete a survey:

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 18, 2013 9:23 am
i have to say that this is appaling!!!!!! i have a daughter that gaduated from a northeast phila high school. the way she was treated by the boys was apaling. like it was a right of passage or she owed it to them to do as they wish. i didnt find out about this all till she graduated. if i had she would not have been there. i also live by a large northeast phila high school. i wish they would close it!!!!!!! i dont like the fact that the students act like they own the area!!!! they are guests in my nighbore hood and i dont like the fighting and gangs of kids on the corners for hours after schools close!!!! also i have a son in a northeast phila middle school. i will tell you the only reason he is there is i made the mistake of alowing him to go there thinking that he would get as good of a eucation as me. i went to phila public schools. he will graduate from that school maybe, then he will go to a private school. that is what is happening in the northeast. you can take your public school and put it anywhere you want just get it outa notheast philadelphia. it brings down the value of my property. come up here and watch the school let out. its a disgrace. so stop arguing and just close it all ready. oh this is 2012, stop with all the race talk. im tierd of hearing it!!!!!!!!
Submitted by Trace (not verified) on January 18, 2013 10:55 am
No!!!!!!! It's 2013!!!!!! Okay????????!!!!!!!!

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