April 24 — 10:06 am, 2012

Radical District reorganization, 64 school closings planned

District staff and consultants are recommending a sweeping overhaul of how public schools in Philadelphia operate, planning to close 64 schools over the next five years and divvy up those that remain among “achievement networks” led by teams of educators or nonprofit institutions.

Listen to reporter Benjamin Herold’s report for NewsWorks Tonight on WHYY.

The achievement networks would have 20 to 30 schools each and be connected by either geography or a common, creative approach to teaching and learning. The leaders of the network, who could include successful principals, would have contracts based on performance and be required to serve students of all abilities and situations equitably.

These networks would be in addition to groups of schools run by charter management organizations, or CMOs.

The planners expect 40 percent of students to be enrolled in charter schools by 2017.

At the same time, the central office staff, already cut in half this year to about 650 people, would shrink even further to around 200 people and handle “non-core mission” functions such as compliance, finance, communications, government relations, accountability, and strategic planning.

Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen said that more direct academic services “are now going to be pushed directly into the field,” although a document sent by Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon to principals over the weekend still called for some academic services to run out of the central office. 

It’s time to move away from “command and control” to a “service delivery” model for a diverse school portfolio, Knudsen said.

The plan, while saying that it is premised on giving parents more choices, doesn’t include any direct promises that schools will get what most parents say they want – smaller classes, art and music teachers, libraries, nurses, adequate security – all of which has been cut this year. And it relies on being able to attract and keep talented principals and teachers in an atmosphere of fiscal austerity, find the money to properly train and support them, and have the resources to give them the materials they need.

Knudsen made it clear that the fiscal picture is still uncertain, disclosing that next year’s anticipated $186 million shortfall has grown to $218 million, due to an adverse state decision about tax assessments

This plan, developed by District teams and the Boston Consulting Group, “is about the need for fundamental change in education policy and practices, and it’s about righting the financial ship and living within our means,” Knudsen said. Without action, the cumulative deficit would grow to $1.1 billion by 2017.

In order to balance the budget by 2014, the proposal includes $156 million in savings by restructuring wages and benefits and $149 million in lower charter school payments, caused by the District’s 7 percent reduction in per-pupil spending. It would also save $122 million through streamlined operations, including $33 million from closing 40 schools in 2013-14.

On the revenue side, the District is counting on City Council approving a new property tax valuation system to bring in $94 million a year, on getting minimal new money from the state, on income from borrowing, and on being able to work around a recent court decision that could result in uncontrolled charter school growth.

Without that tax assessment change to a so-called “actual value” standard, “we will have enormous, enormous problems,” said Knudsen, who briefed City Council on the reorganization.

Knudsen also said that these projections assumed no economic recovery.

Specifics of the reorganization are still being worked out, although they are based on five strategies:

  1. Streamlining achieved by closing schools, modernizing operations, and shrinking the central office;

  2. Establishing a culture of safety and achievement for all students;

  3. Promoting equal access to high-quality choices for parents;

  4. Developing a strong college- and career-ready curriculum, and

  5. Making the system more responsive to schools and community needs.

Nixon’s academic reorganization plan sent to principals doesn’t completely line up with the blueprint laid out by Knudsen, although it is also based on giving schools more autonomy.

Nixon said the highest-performing schools would have control over curricular materials and instructional programs, school climate and safety strategies, professional development, the school budget, and scheduling. A middle group would have the same autonomies, but with additional supports, still required under state law for schools identifying as “needing improvement.”

The lowest group – those with scores of 8, 9, or 10 on the School Performance Index – will still get “intensive, targeted support individualized to the needs of the leaders and the school.” Now, the interventions are more one-size-fits-all, Nixon said.

The blueprint supports “the city’s goals to expand high-performing schools, District and charter, and close or turn around low-performing schools,” Nixon said. As District-run schools are closed, the planners expect continued growth of charter schools and charter networks.

“The SRC wants now to look at the entire array of schools – charter, cyber charter, alternative,” Knudsen said. “They all are public schools dealt with in a portfolio management process.”

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