Facilities master plan will shed 14,000 ’empty seats’

By Benjamin Herold
For the Public School Notebook

After months of speculation that dozens of schools across the city could be shut down, District officials have recommended to the School Reform Commission that just nine schools be closed by 2014.

The recommendations come as part of a package of facilities changes  that District officials say will reduce their excess capacity by 14,000 seats – a far cry from the target of 40,000 seats they had earlier set.

“The path we’re taking, we think fits the times that we’re in,” said Acting Superintendent Leroy Nunery during a press briefing Wednesday morning. 

“What we don’t want to do is just shut buildings down or make a whole lot of changes without vetting everything that we do.”

Eight of the recommended closures would either take place or be initiated in the 2012-13 school year:

North Central

  • Harrison Elementary (K-8) Students to be re-assigned to Dunbar Promise Academy, Ludlow Elementary, or Spring Garden Elementary.

  •  Sheppard Elementary (K-4) Students to be re-assigned to Julia de Burgos Elementary or Hunter Elementary.

  •  FitzSimons High School (7-12) Part of a larger package of changes involving E.W. Rhodes and Strawberry Mansion High Schools, to be phased in over two years.

  • Sheridan West Academy (6-8) Phased out over two years, with all current students remaining until the school closes.

South Central

  • E.M. Stanton Elementary (K-8) Students to be reassigned to Arthur Elementary or Childs Elementary.

  • Philadelphia High School For Business (9-12) Phased out over three years, with all current students remaining until the school closes.

Northwest

  • Levering Elementary (K-8) Students to be reassigned to Dobson Elementary, Cook-Wissahickon Elementary, or AMY Northwest Middle School.

Southwest

  • Drew Elementary (K-8) Students to be reassigned to Powel Elementary, MYA-Middle Years Alternative, Locke Elementary, or Martha Washington Elementary.

The ninth recommendation would be implemented in the 2013-14 school year:

Southwest

  • Pepper Middle School (5-8) Phased out over three years.

Officials estimated that each closing would save the District $500,000-$1,000,000 per year – a meaningful amount, but nowhere near enough to significantly address the District’s budget woes.

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In addition to the closures, there are two grade reconfigurations and one school relocation set for next year, and 15 more grade changes set for 2013-14. Some additional surplus properties will also be listed for sale, including the recently shuttered West Philadelphia High building at 47th and Walnut Streets, and Willard Elementary in Kensington.

The recommended closures and other moves are part of the District’s facilities master plan, which officials for months have said is aimed at shedding more than half of an estimated 70,000 “empty seats” in schools across the city. As the timeline for announcing recommendations neared, however, officials backed away significantly from that target.

“I’m not pegging [the goal of the facilities recommendations] so much on hard numbers as much as I am on capacity reduction and repurposing of spaces,” said Nunery on Wednesday morning.

He also said there could be more recommendations sometime in the “next several months,” especially with regard to high schools and Career and Technical Education.

The nine total closings require approval from the SRC, which is still in the midst of a significant overhaul. Only three commissioners, including recent mayoral appointees Wendell Pritchett and Lorene Cary, are currently seated. The confirmation hearings for Gov. Tom Corbett’s two new nominees, Pedro Ramos and Feather Houstoun, are currently stalled in the Pennsylvania Senate.

“It really is a frustration that we don’t have the full complement yet,” said Pritchett, who is serving as interim chair until Ramos is confirmed.

After an initial hearing on the closings later this month, there is a state-mandated 90-day window before the commission can take a final vote. The District will also be hosting a series of 17 community meetings in affected neighborhoods to get public input on the recommendations.

The SRC has not yet decided if they will vote on the closing recommendations as a package or individually.

Pritchett said that however things play out it is likely to be contentious.

“People’s input is important and will be taken into consideration before the final decisions are made,” he said.

“But I do think it is inevitable that there will be people who are upset and who will not be mollified by an interaction we have with them or any decision in the end. That’s reality.”

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