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An interview with Mayor Nutter about school closings

By the Notebook on Feb 6, 2013 12:08 PM
Photo: Flickr/Talk Radio News Service

Late last month, the Notebook interviewed Mayor Michael Nutter on the topic of school closings. The School District, in December, announced a plan to close 37 schools. Since then, the District has held many community and individual school meetings where the dominant reaction has been opposition and anger. The School Reform Commission is now planning to make a decision March 7, after a round of hearings from Thursday evening, Feb. 21, through Saturday, Feb. 23.

Here are some highlights from the interview:

  • Citing the District’s financial realities and the decision of parents to leave District-run schools, Mayor Nutter supports the closings -- although he says that the District is listening to feedback and that he wouldn't be surprised if the adopted plan looks different from the initial proposal.
  • The mayor defends his decision not to attend any of the community meetings himself. The decisions must be Superintendent Hite’s and the SRC’s, not the mayor’s, he said.
  • He chalks up the opposition and the Council resolution supporting a moratorium on closings to, “This is Philadelphia.”
  • He says that it is important that additional investment be made in the receiving schools: “You can’t do education on the cheap.”

Following is an edited transcript of the interview.


Notebook: At hearings and at School Reform Commission meetings, people have asked “Where’s the mayor?” and complained that you have not been visible on this issue.

Mayor Nutter: I had a full-blown press conference in the hallway. Same day when Dr. Hite made his announcement about the closures. … He was standing next to me. 

Notebook: The Council just passed a resolution calling for a one-year moratorium on the closings. Do you consider that a vote of “no confidence” in the District’s plans?                 

Nutter: I’m aware that there was a resolution passed. I’m not surprised. You know, there were announced closures last year, and this is Philadelphia. So of course there are people who are opposed. I understand that and I respect that. 

Notebook: Have you been keeping up with what’s happening in the hearings? People have been complaining that the closings are ill-thought out.

Nutter: We have to start with a fundamental baseline of information here: 70,000 vacant seats, 53,000 vacant seats in the buildings that are open and operating, another 17,000 in buildings that are closed. We have schools that are operating at 25 percent capacity. You still have to open them; you still have to heat them; you still have to put teachers in them, maintenance staff, etc, etc. It’s a lot of money in a School District that has a $1.3 billion five-year-plan deficit. 

So it’s certainly not a surprise that some schools would be proposed for closure. It’s not a surprise that many would be opposed. On the other hand, the reason there are so many vacant seats is because children and their parents decided to leave those schools to go somewhere else. They moved away from school X and went to school Y or Z or somewhere else a few blocks away or halfway across the city. So parents with children made a decision to depopulate certain schools for a variety of reasons. You can’t afford to keep that level of physical plant open, especially when you’re hemorrhaging money. 

So a significant amount of time and effort and research has gone into the Facilities Master Plan. And I am sure that in many instances, they got it right.

No one likes closing a school, and no one likes particularly closing any facility in this city, for that matter. But we have to deal with the reality of our educational and financial circumstances. It is not fair to continue to send children to a school that is underperforming. It’s not fair to the children and teachers and administrators to ask them to go into a deteriorated, poorly functioning building on a regular basis. So there’s just no getting around the fact that some amount of downsizing has to take place. And more importantly, additional investment needs to be made in the receiving schools in terms of programs and services and supports for the children, in terms of any safety-related issues. But we need to stay focused on what is in the best interest of the children of this city, while at the same time we will hear from many adults, parents and community members, people who have gone to some of the schools that are proposed to be closed, who will not like it. 

The community meetings … clearly Dr. Hite and his team are listening to the community. Because they really are listening to the community, I don’t know that it will be 37 schools, and I don’t know that it will be every one of the schools that was on that list. 

[Closing schools] is not a unique experience to Philadelphia. It’s going on in New York; it’s going on in Chicago; it’s going on in many big-city and medium-sized city school systems all across the United States.

Public education … is a very complicated enterprise, and the cuts that the District has suffered over the past couple of years, certainly from the state, while the city at the same time has increased its support in the last couple of years, has created a dire fiscal picture that causes Superintendent Hite and the SRC to make any number of decisions that they don’t like making, children will not like, and parents won’t like, and taxpayers won’t like. But tough decisions, nonetheless, have to be made. And that’s where we are right now.

Notebook: There’s a lot of fear people aren’t going to be in a better situation. People don’t think that students will necessarily be going to better schools. Students from Overbrook and Gompers will be transferred to Beeber, which is on the persistently dangerous list. There is not one high school left in North Philadelphia between Ben Franklin and Gratz.

Nutter: Well, I understand that. And the District will have to address that … but … the parents and children in those communities made a decision of their own, for whatever reason, to move their child from one school, District-managed, to another school. They didn’t move out of Philadelphia. They just left that part of the system. That was their choice. We believe that parents should have as many high-quality educational options as possible. They make those decisions. They depopulated those buildings. And you reach a certain point, especially when you’re at 20-25 percent utilization, and in many instances in some fairly underperforming buildings, the physical plant of those buildings, you have to question whether or not you continue to send children to a building that’s in poor shape and an educational program that’s not at the level that is good or superior. So it’s rebalancing, based on what parents and kids have done, and certainly again, even in the neighborhood that you’ve mentioned, there are other schools. They may not be District-managed, but even those schools are still public schools paid for by public dollars. 

Notebook: Do you agree with Superintendent Hite, who said that he thought the city had reached a saturation point of charters? There is the financial issue of how much they cost and the academic issue of how they are performing academically.

Nutter: I think what Dr. Hite is trying to do, based on the vision that he laid out in early January, is to provide the quality of education that would encourage and inspire the parent to keep their child in a District-managed school. I mean, you can’t … just like the District, you can’t open a charter school if you don’t have any kids. If more and more children and their parents, if more and more children are staying in District-managed schools because they see additional resources and supports going into those schools, then they will stay. I think the real question that folks need to ask is what is it that parents are finding so much more attractive [in charters]? Is it the program? Is it safety? Is it motivation of the teachers? Is it the quality of the principal? Is it the longer hours? Is it the longer school days, the longer school year? I mean, what we all should be trying to figure out is why are parents making a conscious decision to leave this school to go to that school. What is it that they found so attractive in the school that they transferred to or tried to get into?

Notebook: You said the city increased its resources to the District while the state has cut back. Last year you sought to raise additional money for the District through the Actual Value Initiative or AVI [a revaluation of city properties to conform more closely to their actual value]. Is the city prepared to increase resources to the District again?

Nutter: We’re going to collect the same amount [through AVI] in ’14 as we did in ’13. … And I have said publicly that I’m not expecting to send over a request for a tax increase. I acknowledge that the District has significant financial challenges. We’re focused on getting the AVI, as we’ve outlined it, completed through this current budget process. We’ll see what happens with regard to the District’s finances, their negotiations, additional savings that they may be able to generate, what’s going on with the state budget, those kinds of issues. And we’ll go from there.

Notebook: And the other big issue, uncollected taxes. Is that bearing any fruit?

Nutter: Significant. We’ve had some decent gains in recent times. We are significantly stepping up in our efforts. The General Assembly Philly House delegation introduced a series of bills, one of which was to help us be that much more efficient and aggressive in our tax collections. But we clearly are devoting time, effort, and resources in that regard as well.

Notebook: One of the groups calling for a moratorium on the school closures has said that the city should collect more money from nonprofits, including universities and hospitals, through Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOTS). Other cities do this. [One-third of the property in the city is tax-exempt.]

Nutter: We had an ongoing conversation about PILOTS. We were taking a second look at that whole issue because of a recent court case. But those kinds of programs usually take some amount of time to put into effect and involve some level of negotiation. Again, it’s certainly a potentially viable idea.  But the challenge here is that school is open right now. The District has a $1.3 billion five-year deficit. And so, it is exceedingly difficult to make additional plans on dollars that you [can’t guarantee] that you’re going to collect.

Notebook:  In some of the other cities that have closed schools, they vastly overestimated how much money they would save from closures. They didn’t save as much as they thought. There were all these transition costs that came in. [The School District is counting on $28 million in savings, but say that money at least in the first year will be offset by transition costs.] Are you confident in all these numbers?

Nutter: As confident as I can be. Good and smart people worked on these issues. Of course, I’m hopeful in assuming that they’ve looked at all the vagaries and elements and fine print of all these kinds of issues. Again, there’s just no getting around the fact that they can’t afford it any longer. [The city is] working with the District from a commerce side of this to look at repurposing buildings, sale of buildings, reuse of buildings, all of those kinds of issues, so that we don’t have these, in many instances, pretty huge, if not massive, structures sitting dark and naked in our communities. That’s not a good outcome.

Notebook: People at the community meetings are making counterproposals, like in Germantown, to put Fulton Elementary School in Germantown High and make it a K-12, and also include a Head Start and community-based health clinic in the building. They are afraid that closing both Germantown and Fulton will cause decline in the surrounding neighborhood.

Nutter: I don’t know enough of the details of all that. That’s the kind of thing that will come up in those meetings. Dr. Hite and his team will get into the intricate details. I mean, that’s not for me to [decide]. Ultimately, the decisions made here will be made by the superintendent [and] the School Reform Commission. They will decide what schools stay open, what schools close, not me. We are actively and certainly paying attention to what’s going on. We interact with the District on a more than regular basis. … We are certainly partners in this work of insuring that children get a high-quality education. But I’m not down there figuring out what color drapes to put up or what paint should be on the walls, or what lesson plan the 2nd grade teacher is [using]. Those are educational and operational decisions. The superintendent, with a focused and committed SRC, has been through a Facilities Master Plan with an excruciating amount of detail and engagement, and ultimately they’ll make those decisions. But we are actively concerned and paying attention to what’s going on. But the kind of scenario that you laid out, I’m going to let the educators figure that one out.

Notebook: Dr. Hite’s reform plan, it is ambitious, but he says it is revenue-neutral. Do you think it’s realistically revenue-neutral and able to accomplish everything he wants to?  For instance, he wants to improve professional development for teachers.

Nutter: Well, no one can be against that.

Notebook: Right, but it doesn’t happen magically.

Nutter: No, nothing happens magically. He should be commended for having an ambitious plan. Obviously, given our financial picture, I’m hopeful that it is relatively low cost or no cost. But the real issue is we need to invest in our teachers. We need to invest in our principals. We need to invest in our administrators. And God knows, we need to invest in our children. You can’t do education on the cheap. It just doesn’t work that way.

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Comments (24)

Submitted by tom-104 on February 6, 2013 1:43 pm
Mayor Nutter, under your administration and especially since the beginning of the Corbett administration, the public schools have been severely underfunded. A major factor has been that over the last ten years, since the state takeover, there has been the increasing draining of funds to fund expansion of charter schools at the expense of the public schools. This is why the public schools are under enrolled. Now you suddenly say the receiving schools will need more resources. Why didn't you say that about the public schools at the beginning of your administration? Why are charters seen as the solution when results are showing they are little different, and in some cases worse, than the public schools? The parents at the community meetings were overwhelming in their support of their schools, not wanting them to be closed, and supportive of their teachers. I did not hear one parent say the problem is "bad teachers". There is no "choice" for parents in what is being done to their schools.
Submitted by Joe (not verified) on February 6, 2013 5:24 pm
Yes, that's what is so infuriating about Nutter. He insults the very people who elected him to care for their kids etc. Nutter knows he has the folks in his pocket and abuses them and their collective intelligence routinely. This dude better hope there's no God. "You can't educate on the cheap." How disingenuous for him to say that as he plays the silent lap dog for Corbett and the shot callers above them.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 7, 2013 2:07 am
Nutter is a voice of reason here. He's right that no one likes shutting down any facility in Philadelphia, especially schools, but you can't keep operating a 25% capacity school. He HAS pushed through two property tax increases to fund schools on top of Philly's already sky high tax rates. Sure we all wish the money fairy in Harrisburg would come down and bless us all, but how is just complaining more or more loudly a real solution? Especially not when combined with doing nothing to the status quo. It is a bit ironic that so many of those complaining about the inconvenience or harm of closing schools would be happy closing charter schools and forcing greater harm on more people, forcing some of the 45k+ kids going to charters back into the system they fled. I think Nutter is smart enough to realize that government requires making choices, and this preferred (self serving) "solution" by the establishment is a bad choice on every level- policy, politics, what is good for the kids and the city. The parents & families of the 55k charter kids are quite happier with Nutter than the PFT. The voices that yell the loudest aren't usually the ones with the best ideas. The PFT will back one of their city council stooges for Mayor in three years who tows their party line against charters (while lying to the charter parents he is on their side). Until then, God bless Mayor Nutter.
Submitted by Joe (not verified) on February 7, 2013 9:43 am
You seem to have glossed over the facts, pesky little articles that they are as well very inconvenient to reconcile with a normal conscience. None of this is about saving money but rather making money which is what charters, with a very few exceptions, are all about. Politics, of the most unattractive kind, is at work here and Nutter, your apparent hero, is playing his stepin fetchit or Pontius Pilate part to secure HIS future, at the direct expense of the very people who voted for him. P.S. Sorry for the run-on sentences.
Submitted by reformer (not verified) on February 7, 2013 2:50 pm
we can excuse your run-on sentences, but we can't for one minute accept your characterization of this situation. charters are not for profit. racial insults of the mayor will not win the argument. he is serving the taxpayers, whether they voted for him or not. there is no money. the schools proposed for closure are mostly vacant because the people in those communities chose another option. that's been going on long before charters ever existed. nobody complianed when the district had a monoploly on these children. they were endentured to the district. now, thanks to the state legislature, they do have options. that has accellerated the exit. it has been economic empowerment. it is freedom. instead of trying to find a scapegoat, you should hold up a mirror. there you will see who's the blame.
Submitted by Joe (not verified) on February 7, 2013 3:41 pm
"Charters are not for profit"------Case Closed.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 6, 2013 3:41 pm
The greatest growth in charter schools in PA and Philadelphia was during the Rendell administration. Parents opt for charters mainly for safety reasons. The SDP needs to get out the message that their schools are as safe as charters. Academics again is not the primary reason many parents send their children to charters.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 6, 2013 9:00 pm
So they should basically lie and say they are as safe!? That's just a union talking point. How stupid do you think parents are. They know the truth and vote with their feet!!
Submitted by Joe (not verified) on February 6, 2013 5:30 pm
Nutter is such a waste, a lying sack of............ He's a tool just like Pedro and, of course, Corbett. He's so full of it even I can't think of a description that the Notebook would print. Nutter is completely about Nutter and everybody who knows him, knows that. He's screwing over the very people who elected him while speaking out of both sides of his mouth and lying out of both sides. He even makes me sicker than Tom "One Term " Corbett who is the agent of evil himself. Nutter should be raising hell, loud and long about the carpet bombing of our kids by Corbett but instead he plays the fool for all to see----Uncle Tom alive and well and slithering around Philly.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 6, 2013 5:08 pm
Joe: Concise, cogent analysis.
Submitted by Peg D (not verified) on February 6, 2013 6:07 pm
Philadelphia High Schools are bursting at the seams with students who used to go to Charter Schools in Philadelphia. Hmmm I wonder why
Submitted by reformer (not verified) on February 6, 2013 8:35 pm
if they were bursting at the seams they wouldn't be closing schools. many of the schools have a 25% occupancy rate. if you think that's bursting i hope you don't teach math.
Submitted by Peg D (not verified) on February 7, 2013 7:59 pm
Lincoln High is bursting at the seams
Submitted by JUDITH ROBINSON (not verified) on February 6, 2013 9:18 pm
Politicians are so damn disingenuous!.. from top to bottom... many of the state elected officials have taken$$$ from Students First PACs,there are incentives (Grants) to create Charter Schools from the President,state,and foundations too! Yes ,all of this social engineering to encourage parents to accept charter schools WITHOUT any assurance of Education. Who is in charge of evaluating the charter school performance ,as public education is strip of the children /cash ?..most parents are not aware of the national agenda,or the use of institutions like PHA to move population(hundred of families with school age children have been moved out of Philly,and other urban areas) increasing greatly the vacancy issue. In addition ,the changes of the agenda at the SDP every few years, is enough to send any family running to a new setting ,even if it is untested. Many charter schools use some of the same buildings vacated by SDP,often after they have been unoccupied for years. . Mayor and his Gang run CEO out of town ! We know a scam,when we see it ! Too many politicians are connected to charter schools or are vendor/service providers ,Overseers.. Charter schools are Business Deals using tax$$$.An education experiment,using African American children as usual ! Gentrification by Institution... In North PHilly, We want in on this gravytrain ?? Give us a school ,we show you Education...
Submitted by Joe (not verified) on February 7, 2013 9:58 am
Judith, You make several very good points, especially seeing through Nutter's lies.
Submitted by Joe (not verified) on February 7, 2013 9:24 am
Judith, You make several very good points, especially seeing through Nutter's lies. Disingenuous is exactly what most politicians are all about but Nutter and folks of his ilk are especially repugnant for playing to his folks while throwing them under the bus so his future is secured. Makes me sick.
Submitted by JUDITH ROBINSON (not verified) on February 7, 2013 6:24 am
Organized choas!! This scam was created and pakaged to hand over to the next Superintendent. Check out the Mayor Office of Education...Compact? The created organization-greatphillyschools .org,foundations,etc. Peel the onion,you will find layers of connections,pushing agenda!!! Please taxpayers,let's really demand some answers !! Since Education delivery,is being changed-let's really look at every $$ and where it is going?
Submitted by Jim (not verified) on February 7, 2013 6:35 am
I don't think it was Hite's plan, but the District is providing decent professional development via online courses that are free for Act 48 credits or $150 for a grad credit. PD is necessary and it is something I commend the District on.
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on February 7, 2013 10:29 am
I would hope that that training has merit, that is not solely "in house"... because there is a conflict of interest there.
Submitted by Jim (not verified) on February 7, 2013 10:57 am
They're from Knowledge Delivery Systems. What would the conflict of interest be in professional development tailored to teachers in our district?
Submitted by Annoy (not verified) on February 7, 2013 10:44 am
It is a company run by former District employees.
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on February 7, 2013 10:29 am
Looks like they're based in New York. Also looks like they're too new to have been evaluated by a third party. Well, sure, be open minded, but careful. Then again, will the District tell us how much they have paid for this? KDSI is definitely "for profit". I have seen too many of the District's funds routed to "in house" PD, which teachers then have very little choice in choosing, or which is "highly encouraged". Wouldn't I as a parent and taxpayer want some quality assurance for what is being spent?
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on February 7, 2013 9:52 am
I would like to know more about how he, Mayor Nutter, and Council are working with the District in the repurposing of the buildings. What he says is sensible, but he's so very detached. He makes no mention of the connection of a community to a school. Nor does he make mention of the connection of his office and Council's to the community. All are connected. Mayor, your office had, and still has, a part to play in the drama you now see unfolding. In addition, it appears he has not looked at the Census data firsthand. Families with school age children have left the City, taking some 44,000 of these "seats" with them from 2000 to 2010. Perhaps they felt their wage tax was better "repurposed" as property tax that would benefit their children? Looks like the City will be a great place to be, without children. C'est la vie.
Submitted by Pseudonymous (not verified) on February 7, 2013 6:02 pm
When Ackerman was on her way out, Nutter made several huge power grabs. Now that Hite is here and hiring all his buddies, here's Nutter passing the buck for unpopular decisions in the schools. Nobody with any fortitude is in charge in this city. It's disgraceful.

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