Budget Woes Could Close Philly's Problem Schools

Philadelphia's school district plans to close a quarter of its school buildings in coming years to eliminate a huge budget hole. But parents and activists don't trust the decision-makers. Many of them suspect the plan is a ruse to force charter schools and privatization on the district.

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On a Monday morning, a school day for many, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Philadelphia's school district is facing a financial crisis. After years of declining enrollment, the district projects a deficit next year of $218 million. So administrators are proposing to close down a quarter of the city's public schools. Parents are not happy, as NPR's Jeff Brady reports.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: The School District of Philadelphia hasn't identified which neighborhoods could lose schools. But just the mention of getting rid of a quarter of the district's 250 buildings has led to some heated public hearings. Helen Gym is a parent and well-known activist in the city.

HELEN GYM: I would have hoped that you would have come in and you would have ripped out the things that we have been trying to rip out - the political graft, the corruption, the contracts and every single person who felt like they could stick their program on our schools' children's backs.

BRADY: Gym believes there's money to be saved by canceling some of the district's professional services contracts and reviewing executive compensation. At that same hearing, acting superintendent Tom Knudsen offered a sober assessment of the district's finances.

TOM KNUDSEN: Years of slow economic growth have cut our resources significantly, even as our expenses have continued to rise. We are, quite simply, in a financial crisis.

BRADY: The district's latest reform effort is called the Blueprint for Transforming Philadelphia's Public Schools. Looking out five years, Knudsen says the budget hole expands to $1.1 billion.

KNUDSEN: If we do not take dramatic steps now, to right ourselves, we will not be able to operate.

BRADY: The blueprint proposes shutting down problem schools and focusing on those doing well. That could mean expanding charter schools. The blueprint also calls for de-centralizing the district. Parent Rebecca Poyourow suspects the goal is to privatize more of the public school system.

REBECCA POYOUROW: It is, at best, foolish; and at worst, devious, for you to choose this moment of fiscal crisis to foist a poorly-conceived and primarily ideological reorganization scheme on Philadelphia schools.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

BRADY: Poyourow says the overhaul and the current money problems should be viewed separately. Most parents speaking out against the blueprint say they want the district to clean up its finances, then lobby the city and the state for more money. Paul Hill has heard this before. He founded the Center for Reinventing Public Education, based in Seattle. He says big city districts like Philadelphia were built to serve much larger enrollments.

PAUL HILL: If you don't have a growing population, you end up with a deficit. And, so, if you end up with a shrinking population, you have a big deficit - a crushing one, a bankrupting level one. And that's what's happened to a lot of these cities.

BRADY: Philadelphia has lost 50,000 students in the past decade, mostly to charter schools and the suburbs. Officials like Wendell Pritchett with the School Reform Commission say something has to be done.

WENDELL PRITCHETT: The point of these meetings is to come up with a better plan. It's a draft. It's easy to say, your plan sucks. It's not easy to come up with an alternative.

BRADY: District administrators hope to have a detailed plan by late summer.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, Philadelphia.

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