December 1 — 1:21 pm, 2010

Facilities master plan: School closures likely

The District plans three rounds of community meetings on how to deal with half-empty schools and aging buildings.

5 childs school 0 Photo: Paul Socolar

With a series of community meetings in November and December, the School District is preparing the public for the likelihood that some school buildings will be permanently closed. The reason: There are now 45,000 more seats in its schools than there are students.

While emphasizing that the "facilities master plan" now under development is about much more than closing schools, Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery acknowledged that "there is a possibility" that some schools will be gone by September.

So far, District officials have declined to project a number of schools to be closed or specify any targets for downsizing. They said they will name specific schools that may be affected by late January or early February and conduct two additional rounds of community meetings to secure public input.

"The goal is not just to shut down," Nunery said. "It is to offer something completely better, a different footprint that serves the kids in a better way."

Unused classroom space in District buildings has been increasing – up from 43,500 seats when the School Reform Commission last heard a report on the topic in 2009. District enrollment has been declining, due in large part to a continued shift of students into charter schools.

"We have more buildings than our current enrollment dictates and our future enrollment needs dictate," said Danielle Floyd, deputy for strategic initiatives, who is overseeing the facilities planning process.

The District is following recommendations from a 2009 report to the SRC, when planners from Athenian Properties LLC urged the commission to deal with excess capacity by pursuing building closure, consolidation, conversion of use, and changing assignment patterns.

"By more closely matching the number of available seats to current and projected student enrollment, or ‘rightsizing,’ the SRC and the District have the opportunity to spend less money on real estate and more on education," the Athenian presentation said.

The tab to fix and modernize the aging inventory of 433 District buildings is estimated to be $4 billion.

District officials said they anticipate an intensive planning process with more than two dozen community meetings that will culminate with the SRC adopting a new facilities plan by next April, before it approves the 2011-12 budget.

School closings could be one way to make a dent in what is likely to be a massive budget gap facing the District next year. The District faces the loss of about a quarter billion dollars annually in federal stimulus funds, most of which come through the state.

Nunery noted that the facilities process will also coincide with planning for the second year of the District’s Renaissance Schools initiative, in which some low-performing schools are being converted to charters but operating in the same buildings.

School closings have been a major component of districtwide strategies for addressing low-performing schools in other cities such as Chicago.

Besides reducing the number of empty seats, Floyd enumerated five other key "outcomes" for the District’s facilities plan, including:  

  • implementing best practices for program and grade configuration;
  • setting "Academic and Facility Standards" for different types of school facilities;  
  • creating a facilities condition index reflecting the needs and repair costs at each school;
  • drafting a five-year capital improvement plan;  
  • making plans for surplus real estate.

The District is coordinating its planning process with the city’s Planning Commission, the Philadelphia Housing Authority, and other development organizations, Floyd said.

She added that the issues and needs are very different in different parts of the city. In what used to be the East and Northeast regions, there is little excess space. In the former East region, the high schools are actually overcrowded.

At the other end of the spectrum, in the former Central region, comprising North Philadelphia, the average school is nearly half empty. In five other former regions, schools average below 75 percent capacity. Across the city, middle schools are generally underutilized.

Most recent school closing proposals in Philadelphia have sparked controversy. In the case of William Penn High School, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman decided in 2009 not to permanently close the school in the face of an outcry from the community.

Floyd said the District has learned from these experiences that "it’s important to be open, transparent, and inclusive throughout the process." She added that "paying attention to the timing" of the process is also key.

In the second phase of community meetings starting in January, Floyd said, "we will go back out to the community with data." Ten meetings are planned, with the schools to be divvied up among 10 "planning districts" and extensive information on each school to be displayed for feedback.

A third phase, with 10 more meetings in the same planning districts in March or April, is when the District will present "final decisions."

Some are skeptical about the District’s promise of an inclusive process.

Parent activist Arenda Bethel said she has attended two District meetings so far and doubts that the District is fully disclosing what it has already planned.

"It’s an illusion of inclusion," she said.

Bethel was a parent at Ada Lewis Middle School who fought its closing in 2007.

"Unless you’ve been there and done that, you can’t imagine how it changes your community to have a school closed," she said.

"I do want to encourage people to come out," Bethel added. "Their voices need to be heard. Nobody knows more about what’s going on in their community … and how things will affect them."

Additional information about the facilities plan and a schedule of community meetings are available at www.philasd.org/fmp.

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