The already dysfunctional relationship between City Hall and the School District of Philadelphia was further complicated this week when the Public School Notebook published a leaked draft version of the district’s “rightsizing” plan, which calls for closing as many as two dozen schools over the next two years.
From a political point of view, the timing could not have been worse.
The list was published just two days after City Council and Mayor Nutter formally signed off on a property tax hike to help the district through its budget crisis, a bruising process that both cost Nutter capital with council and exposed the huge gulf between City Hall and the district.
School district officials have described the document as an incomplete, working draft – a list of “options,” not settled actions – which will be changed before anything is formally released. “People have jumped to conclusions,” Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery said at a recent meeting of the School Reform Commission.
Nevertheless, a number of council members and staffers are already objecting to the plan, for two reasons. They don’t like its content, (which is probably inevitable, given the unpopularity of closing any schools, much less 25), and they don’t like feeling as though they’ve been left out of the decision making.
“It’s an affront to City Council,” said Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell, chair of council’s education committee and, until recently, one of Ackerman’s few allies on council.
For the Nutter administration, the list’s very existence is inconvenient. The highly publicized “education accountability agreement” signed by Nutter, SRC chairman Robert Archie and State Education Secretary Ron Tomalis last month explicitly calls on the district to hand over copies of “all documents and studies related to the facilities master plan, the proposed school site closure list, decisions related to these areas and all reports generated by outside consultants.”
The document published by the Notebook was generated by an outside consultant, and it is indisputably a document related to the facilities master plan, even if it is not the final school closure list.
And yet the document was not included in the files transferred to the administration in the days after the agreement was reached, according to both the city and the district. That fact does not trouble Nutter, said administration spokesman Mark McDonald.
“We were not snookered here,” said McDonald. “In no way, shape or form did they violate the agreement,” said McDonald. He criticized the Notebook for publishing what he said was a document that is “so far from being a final proposal.”
When asked if the administration did not want the documents because it preferred to keep its distance from a controversial issue such as school closings, McDonald said “the issue was not wanting a list of things that were being talked about in only a very general way.”
Ackerman and the mayor have not publicly feuded since the accountability agreement was signed in a very public display of fence-mending. But several sources within the administration and on council said the mayor’s relationship with the superintendent remained cool. One council source – who did not want to be named – suggested that Nutter had “almost no pull or leverage” with Ackerman by the end of the budget process.
“The accountability agreement in my view is not worth the paper it’s printed on,” said Councilman Jim Kenney. “They’re in a total other world, those people. I have no faith they’re going to follow through on anything they say they’re going to do.”
Under the best of circumstances, a school closings list would likely still have upset council, particularly district council members who are bound to hear from constituents affected by the pending closures.
Take Blackwell. Her West Philadelphia district has more than its share of under-used schools, a fact reflected by the “options” list, which suggest closing three elementary schools, one middle school and a small high school in Blackwell’s district alone.
“So many? It’s hard to believe that they would close all of them. “I’m not at all pleased. Not. At. All. Pleased,” Blackwell said. “I don’t think it’s fair and I don’t think it’s right.”
But Blackwell was just as irritated that she first heard of the potential closings from a reporter.
“I understand none of this is final, but I have told them before: things work better when we communicate. They should communicate with the council people,” Blackwell said. “I don’t know what their deal is. It’s very, very upsetting.”
That view was shared by Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller.
“We need to be informed about what’s going on in our districts, and I have not been informed about any of this,” she said. “We will be calling over there to figure out what’s going on.”
Councilman Bill Green, who has been one of Ackerman’s most vocal council critics, said he understood the need for internal deliberations, but was nonetheless perturbed by the fact the district had implied to council they were not as far along in settling on their decisions as they appear to be.
“We’ve been told they’re not there yet, both in private meetings and in council testimony. It’s disturbing that they’re not being more open and frank about it,” Green said. “It’s very hard not to be cynical at this point.”
Given the summer recess, many council members were unavailable for comment. But only one of six interviewed for this story defended the district’s decision to keep the options document under wraps: Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown.
“Different leaders deal with major decisions in different ways. In time I know they’ll deal with the public part of this, which is to in an appropriate and timely way alert various constituency groups to their plans,” Brown said.
In legal terms, council and the mayor have no say at all over which schools are closed. But both parties – especially district council members – can gum up the district’s plans to sell the properties for redevelopment, by letting developers know they oppose the district’s plans to shutter the schools.
The district did not have an immediate response to the comments from City Council members, apart from referring to a statement it released last week. “District staff has and will continue to brief the Mayor’s office and city council members on information gathered and work completed to date,” the statement read.
This story is the product of a reporting partnership on the facilities master plan between the Notebook and PlanPhilly.
Contact the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org