Hite troubled by SRC ruling but says, 'We have to abide'

Superintendent William Hite Jr. was clear: The district cannot fight the decision.

Does the new reality handed him this week by the state Supreme Court trouble William R. Hite Jr.?

"Absolutely, I'm worried about what it means," the Philadelphia school superintendent said Thursday night of a court ruling this week striking down some of the special powers the School Reform Commission has used in times of crisis. "A lot of the tools that the governing body had have been removed."

The decision could affect how teachers are assigned, how schools are closed, and, most significant, how charter schools might grow.

Hite was clear that the district cannot fight the decision.

"It's the new law, and we have to abide by that," he said after Thursday's SRC meeting. But, he said, it's clear the court acknowledged that a fiscally distressed system like Philadelphia's needs tools to manage through crises.

The court flagged a flaw in the way the law was written, Hite said, and so a legislative fix is needed.

Unchecked charter growth would be disastrous for a district unable to say whether it will have enough cash to continue through the school year's end. But, Hite said, he took comfort that 78 of the district's 84 charters have signed pacts that include enrollment caps.

Charter experts, however, have said that schools that signed caps solely because of pressure from the district might have legal standing to fight the limits.

Hite's comments came after an SRC meeting at which the commission voted to close Beeber, Leeds, and LaBrum Middle Schools.

Leeds, in Northwest Philadelphia, has struggled historically but recently has made progress. The school will merge with Hill-Freedman, a district magnet, which will take over the Leeds building on Mount Pleasant Avenue.

Current Leeds students will be absorbed into the magnet school. Students who would have gone to Leeds will stay at F.S. Edmonds and Pennypacker, their current elementaries, which will grow to K-8 schools.

Beeber, in Overbrook, has had dismal academics and climate for years; few parents in the neighborhood send their children to the school. Current Beeber students will finish out their time at the school, whose program technically closes in 2018. Would-be Beeber students will stay in their higher-performing elementary schools: Cassidy, Gompers, and Overbrook. Beeber's building will stay open, continuing to house Science Leadership Academy @ Beeber, a high school already operating in the Malvern Avenue building.

Cecilia Thompson, whose son previously attended Gompers, asked whether the smaller schools could handle more students. District staff said they could.

Hite said buildings would be ready. In the past, closings were voted on later in the year, and mergers still happened. "We feel like we've learned from that process," Hite said.

Commissioner Sylvia Simms voted against the Beeber closure, which passed, 4-1. The others passed unanimously.

LaBrum, in the Northeast, was a technical closure. The school recently became a campus of nearby Hancock Elementary, and will continue as such. The closure was needed to formally consolidate the schools' operations for the state's purposes.

Members of the SRC heard spirited testimony - with loud commentary from the audience - on the future of Wister Elementary, not on Thursday night's agenda.

Wister, in Germantown, was one of three district schools slated to be given to charter companies. Hite, after noting some academic progress at the school, reversed his Wister recommendation, but last month, Simms put the charter conversion back on the table.

There was bitter push and pull among audience members - some of whom loudly spoke out for Mastery, the company that stands to run Wister - and some from staff and parents who want Wister to remain part of the district.

The SRC will vote this spring on whether to award Mastery a charter to run Wister.