School buildings aren't sacred

West Philadelphia High School. (David Maialetti / Staff Photographer)

With 70,000 empty seats in public-school classrooms across the city, the Philadelphia School District has more schools than it needs. But in its first comprehensive facilities plan in 15 years, the district doesn’t close any schools in time to begin the next school year.

Instead, the plan, which will reduce the district’s excess capacity by at least 50 percent, will take three years to complete. That’s far too long when the budget-strapped district could use the savings that would be achieved by consolidating and closing schools now.

Maintaining excess buildings and staffing them with principals and other administrators is a costly drain. Attending a half-empty school also isn’t good for students, who could benefit from the programs and activities at schools that are better staffed because they have more students.

Faced with a $629 million budget gap next fiscal year, the district needs a more aggressive plan that streamlines operations and yields savings sooner.

With 155,000 students enrolled, district buildings are about 67 percent occupied. Experts say the ideal utilization rate is 85 percent. In the last five years, the district has lost 11,000 students. By 2014, enrollment is expected to drop to 145,000, putting more pressure on the district to downsize with a sense of urgency.

There are some immediate changes in the facilities plan unveiled last week that have merit, such as changing grade configurations, closing annexes, and selling buildings that have already been closed. Changing the grades that schools serve will allow for more continuity in neighborhoods with feeder schools.

The plan calls for closed buildings to be put up for sale and for some older buildings to be renovated. But a moratorium will be imposed on any construction that creates additional seats, which makes sense.

However, in order to save money and maximize resources, the district must speed up the closure and consolidation of schools that are already mostly empty.

Of course, moving teachers and staff will be met with stiff opposition. It always is. Parents and grandparents often want to see their children attend the same schools they did. Their voices are important in this process. But their protests can’t be the deciding factor.

In the past, the district has too often caved to public pressure. This time, Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman must be stronger than her predecessors and make the closing and consolidation decisions that make the most sense for the district.

And she should do that sooner rather than later.