Faced With Massive Budget Cuts, Philadelphia Plans To Shutter 23 Schools

School officials in Philadelphia announced Thursday night the names of 23 schools that will be closed to help narrow a budget gap of more than $1 billion. Philadelphia is one of several big city school districts that are shutting down schools amid declining enrollments, the rise of charter schools and low student achievement.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Philadelphia is closing almost two dozen of its public schools. The move prompted outcry in the nation's fifth largest city, but the schools in Philly face declining enrollment, aging infrastructure and massive state budget cuts. And those forces came to a head last night when the city's school reform commission took a vote. Benjamin Herold is covering the emotional decision from member station WHYY.

BENJAMIN HEROLD, BYLINE: The opposition to Philadelphia superintendent William Hite's plan to close city schools were immense and vocal. About 700 teachers, students, parents and activists rallied outside Philadelphia School District headquarters before the vote. Randi Weingarten, the national president of the American Federation of Teachers, climbed up on a wall to address the throng.

RANDI WEINGARTEN: Tonight, all across the country, everyone is watching Philly to say, will the powers that be in Philly stand up for the public schools?

HEROLD: Inside the building's auditorium, protestors tried to prevent the commissioners from entering. Nineteen people, including Weingarten and two leaders from local student organized groups, were arrested. Then, a somber mood settled over the room.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible) will you please introduce the speakers?

HEROLD: For months, Philadelphia education leaders have been making their case, arguing that a $1.35 billion budget deficit over the next five years meant the school district could no longer afford to put off tough decisions about closing schools. Back in December, Superintendent Hite announced an unprecedented plan to downsize.

WILLIAM HITE: We are recommending the closure of 37 buildings and changing the grade configuration in 18 schools.

HEROLD: But the past three months were bruising. During dozens of public forums, Philadelphians pushed back, stating concerns about safety, academics and whether the city's poor and minority neighborhoods were being affected disproportionately. In February, Hite pared his plan back. Twenty-seven schools were on the docket Thursday night.

DEBRA PERRY: What I want to say to you and what is not part of the facts and figures is what is at the heart of Taylor School. Taylor is our home away from home. We are a family.

HEROLD: Kindergarten teacher Debra Perry was one of several to make a last minute plea on behalf of Bayard Taylor Elementary in North Philadelphia.

PERRY: Taylor School is a place of quiet love. Like a family, we stand together always united in our love for our students.

HEROLD: Shortly before 8:00, the commissioners began voting, closing many schools unanimously.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Is there a motion to approve A1 and A2, which are LP Hill and Reynolds Elementary?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: So moved.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Is there a second?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Second.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Roll call.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Mr. Diresky(ph)?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Miss Houston(ph)?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Dr. Pritchit(ph)?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Miss Sims(ph)?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Chairman Ramos(ph).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Yes.

HEROLD: Taylor Elementary was spared. But by the end of the meeting, the commission had voted to shutter 23 schools and to merge or relocate five others. More than 10,000 students will likely be displaced. Chairman Pedro Ramos said the commission wasn't happy with its vote, but had no other choice.

PEDRO RAMOS: It was excruciating and difficult and emotional for all of us, but was brought about by a lot of decisions not being made in a timely way.

HEROLD: A federal civil rights complaint against the district for eight school closings last year is still under review. Activists in Philadelphia, Detroit and Newark say that the closings discriminate against black and Hispanic students and those with disabilities. The head of Philadelphia's NAACP threatened yesterday that a new suit could be coming soon. For NPR News, I'm Benjamin Herold in Philadelphia.

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