Deal keeps city schools open on weekends, councilman says

UPDATE, 6:30 p.m.

Councilman Bobby Henon, on his Facebook page, is reporting the deal is done.

"Great news! City Council, the Council President and the Mayor have collectively worked together in partnership with the School District of Philadelphia to ensure we are able to use our public school gyms without interruptions for the remainder of the season. The facilities will still close an hour early during the week (at 8 PM). Thank you to everyone who contacted me and helped convey to the elected officials and School District to remind us that we need to put our kids first."

District spokesman Fernando Gallard said he could not confirm the news.


Over 12,000 people - mostly children - would be affected by the Philadelphia School District's recent decision to shut its buildings early at night and completely on the weekends.  Schools and groups that pay the district for building usage aren't affected, but city Department of Recreation programs - basketball, drama, dance, soccer - would be out in the cold effective Saturday.

But according to several sources close to the talks, a deal could be close to allow the groups to at least finish out the school year in district buildings. District spokesman Fernando Gallard confirmed that the city and district are in talks over the building closures.

"People are in a panic," said Councilman Brian J. O'Neill, whose Northeast Philadelphia district would be particularly hard hit.  "These programs are coming down the stretch.  They've sold tickets for plays and dance recitals.  We have to work this out."

An example: one Fox Chase drama group has already paid $1,000 for the rights to a production of The Wizard of Oz.  Children have been rehearsing for months, and performances are set for late March. The site of the production?  Fox Chase Elementary School, a district building.

In a statement on his website, Councilman Bobby Henon said he was "shocked" to learn about the decision, and has heard much from his constituents about the closings.  "City Council was not consulted in this decision, and I am not pleased with the School Disrict's process and lack of opportunity to provide input," Henon wrote.

The closures affect programs throughout the city, but many are in the Northeast because of the high population density there and the relatively low number of public buildings. As O'Neill explains it, when the Northeast began booming in the 1950s and '60s, recreation centers were built with tiny buildings and lots of ballfields.  The idea was that programs could use the space in school buildings. 

This pay-or-get-out issue has come up multiple times when the district needs to cut costs, but has never gone this far, O'Neill said.  Ultimately, the city foots some school district costs and the district pays for some city programs, but it's got to balance out, O'Neill said.

"I think it will get worked out," he said.  "I believe that by the end of the week, we'll have a situation that's fair for everyone."