The Philadelphia School District announced Friday that it would not recommend any school closures for the upcoming school year.
“We’re operating this year under the principle that any closure or move must result in students moving to higher performing schools,” said Philadelphia schools superintendent Dr. William Hite during a telephone interview with reporters.
This philosophical rationale is a vast departure from that previously employed by Hite.
Since Hite became CEO the district has shuttered 30 schools – 24 in 2013 and six in 2012.
Those decisions, Hite acknowledged, were based purely on the attempt to increase efficiency by improving the district’s overall utilization rate — which accounts for a building’s actual enrollment compared with its potential capacity.
Last year, district schools were 67 percent utilized. This year, after 24 closures, that rate ticked up to 74 percent.
But while that “straight-utilization” philosophy helped the district reduce its operating expenses, the rationale didn’t come without costs.
In making the announcement, Hite admitted that last year’s closures shuffled some students to lesser-performing schools.
“One of the things that we’re finding is there’s consequences to all of these actions,” said Hite. “If, in fact, we only base this on utilization … then parents are more likely to move out of the area or pull their children out of those schools and put them in other places.”
Financial consequences a possibility
Friday’s announcement came on the heels of a report by rating agency Moody’s Investors Service. The report suggested that further instability resulting in students leaving district-run schools would negatively affect the district’s bond rating.
Hite said the Moody’s report “validates why this and other decisions are so important.” He then referenced the cost-cutting efforts the district has made in last 18 months including reducing staff, closing buildings and eliminating programs.
The district also hopes to save $133 million in recurring revenue by getting its labor partners to agree to wage reductions and increased health-care costs. The district’s contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers expired on Aug. 31.
“It’s not like we’re sitting here wasting money,” said Hite.
Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, characterized the decision as “a validation of the concerns expressed repeatedly over the past year by parents, educators, students and community members.”
Closing schools, Jordan said, “not only jeopardizes the future of our students, but harms future economic prospects for our city.”
Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke said Hite’s announcement “is welcome during what is already an extremely challenging year for Philadelphia schoolchildren, their families, and hardworking educators and staff.”
The office of Mayor Michael Nutter concurred. “The whole system is under so much pressure and stress because of cuts, to put on top of that some closures I think might tax the system beyond capacity,” said Lori Shorr, the mayor’s chief education officer.
The district’s five-year plan calls for districtwide utilization rates to rise to 85 percent.
There’s no guarantee that the district’s philosophical shift will be permanent, but Hite said current thinking will remain a “primary factor” in potential future closing decisions.
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Utilization rate breakdown provided by the School District of Philadelphia:
2013-14 School Year
Elementary School: 81 percent
Middle School: 59 percent
High School: 65 percent
Overall: 74 percent
2012-13 School Year
Elementary School: 77 percent
Middle School: 46 percent
Middle Secondary: 93 percent
High School: 58 percent
Overall: 67 percent
A previous version of this story referenced figures related to students who were affected by last year’s school clousres.