Council set to hold Philadelphia school closing hearings

Over six weeks, parents, students, labor unions, and clergy have all taken turns blasting the School District of Philadelphia’s plan to close 37 schools by next fall.

Now, City Council wants to get in on the act.

“Everybody agrees that some schools have to be closed. But certainly not all of them,” said Jannie Blackwell, the chair of Council’s education committee.

Blackwell, who represents the city’s 3rd District in West Philly, has called hearings to begin at 11 a.m. Tuesday in Council chambers.

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She recently led Council in adopting a nonbinding resolution calling for a one-year moratorium on any new school closings. But Blackwell says Tuesday’s hearings are a chance to negotiate with the School Reform Commission and Superintendent William Hite.

“We think we’ve already won some victory in that Dr. Hite is saying, ‘Well, maybe not all 37 schools have to close,'” said Blackwell. “We’re hoping we can give him reasons to back up even more on some of these schools.”

Hite is scheduled to testify at the hearings. Representatives from the SRC will also be present.

District officials have indicated they’re willing to be flexible on the specifics of their school closings plan, to a point. One way or another, they say, the cash-strapped city school system needs to save $28 million per year through school closures.

Blackwell says that Hite and the district now have no choice but to listen, however.

“There’s been a groundswell,” she said. “Everybody’s upset because some of the decisions to close some schools just don’t make sense.”

In a recent interview, Mayor Michael Nutter chalked up the opposition to the district’s ambitious school closings plan to the city’s culture of being resistant to change, saying, “This is Philadelphia.”

Blackwell bristled at that notion.

“Talking about a moratorium is a grassroots, bottom-up fight for inclusion” by communities who are upset about not being consulted prior to the district announcing its plan, said Blackwell.

But the best reason for district officials to hear council out has to do with dollars and cents; before long, the district will likely be asking for more funding to help close its massive budget gap for next school year.

“Money always talks,” said Blackwell. “We will certainly use whatever leverage we have to [make] the school district continue to listen.”

This story was reported as part of a partnership in education coverage between WHYY/NewsWorks and the Public School Notebook.

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