This is the time to rightsize, but will we be able to agree on what is “right?”
The Comprehensive School Planning Review ( CSPR) is likely to be the most controversial undertaking in the Philadelphia School District since the closing of 23 schools in 2011. As some neighborhoods in South Philly and University City have rapidly gentrified and others like Mayfair have experienced an influx of young working class families, still others have witnessed a major exodus of students to charter schools. Space utilization has been revolutionized in less than a decade.
And given buildings with an average age of 70, decades of deferred maintenance due to underfunding by the State, and an estimated $5 billion price tag for bringing every building up to par, this is clearly the time to right size.
If we could only agree on what is “right.”
The challenge is daunting, which is why it has been avoided for far too long. And the context isn’t exactly favorable. CSPR arrived on the heels of the ill-fated Ben Franklin High School renovation to accommodate Science Leadership Academy, leading many to question the District’s fundamental competence in addressing facilities needs.
Then came a huge cultural insult when a message was sent in English only urging parents to join a study area planning committee in a neighborhood full of non-English speaking Asian and Central American families.
To crown the missteps, we learned that the District had spent $604,000 on renovations to the Superintendent’s suite while thousands of students and staff spend their days in schools with exposed lead, asbestos, mold, vermin and leaks.
This frightening trio of flawed judgments was offset in part by the wise decision of Vanessa Benton, a newcomer who is leading the CSPR, to permit a persistent critic of the District into a closed meeting.
It is impossible to overestimate the challenge the District faces, not only because of its weak track record, but also because almost no one wants a school closed, moved, rezoned or reconfigured.
But there are ways for the District to lower the resistance, first by providing an open forum in each of the three initial study areas, at which parents, school leaders and staff, students and community stakeholders present their visions for public engagement, and second, through hiring trained mediators, like those used in the legal system to help the parties reach compromise.
CSPR is a high-stakes challenge to a District leadership which desperately needs to regain public confidence. It will take a lot more than bromides.
Debra Weiner is a longtime Philadelphia public education activist who at various times has worked at the District, Community College of Philadelphia, and the college-access nonprofit Philadelphia Futures.