Report: Phila. SD must prepare for painful school closing process

As it prepares to close schools, the Philadelphia School District must prepare for a potentially politicially painful process that probably won't generate much revenue, according to a report by the Pew Charitable Trusts' Philadelphia Research Initiative released today.

The report examined districts that have engaged in large-scale school closings over the past decade, including Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Washington.

It concluded that short-term financial gains have “been relatively small in the context of big-city school-district budgets, with the largest savings achieved when closings were combined with large-scale layoffs.  Longer-term savings are difficult to project.”

In many cities, researchers found, vacant old school buildings have proven to be a tough sell.  As of this summer, there were 200 unoccupied, unsold school properties in the districts Pew studied.

Researchers found that school closings appear to have little long-term effect on student performance, but often mean serious political fallout.

In Washington, anger over the way the closings were handled led in part to the mayor and schools chancellor losing their jobs; in Chicago, the process led to a new law dictating how school closings will play out in the future.

Recommendations on Philadelphia closings and consolidations are expected later this month or early next month.

The district’s enrollment has dropped 23 percent in 10 years, from 201,190 students to 154,482. Fewer school-age children and a boom in charter schools have hastened the decline.

Though it has closed a handful of schools and given others to charter organizations, who lease district space, the district still runs 249 schools, many of which are old and in bad shape. 

The average district school is 63 years old.  One school, Francis Scott Key, was built in 1889.

Though some sections of the city have thousands of excess seats, others are full.  Schools in the Northeast operate at 100 percent capacity, for instance; in the Southwest, schools are only at 55 percent capacity.

Officials estimate that after recommendations for closures, consolidations and grade and boundary changes are made in the next few weeks, public hearings will be held with a School Reform Commission vote to be held in February. 

The first round of schools will be closed in June, with another round of closures expected in 2013.

Researchers point out that Philadelphia officials have researched other cities’ school closing procedures and followed best practices – making an early case why they must close schools and establishing measurable criteria to guide closure decisions.

But, they say, “the most difficult parts of the process – those that impact specific students, parents and neighborhoods – are yet to come.”

Read the full text of the report here.