This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
At Wednesday’s School Reform Commission meeting, a first look at the School District’s efforts to develop a facilities master plan offered new information about the public’s role in the planning process. But there are no details yet about how many schools the District intends to close as it works to align the number of classroom seats with its declining student population.
“There is a possibility that some schools will close by next year,” was as specific as Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery would get in a press briefing, which followed a presentation to the SRC by Danielle Floyd, deputy for strategic initiatives. Floyd highlighted the “45,000 empty seats” in the School District.
The excess classroom space is up from 43,500 seats when the SRC last heard a report on the topic in 2009. Floyd added, “We have more buildings than our future enrollment needs dictate.”
Added to this is a problem of deferred maintenance. The estimated $4 billion repair tab for the District’s buildings had commissioners like Joseph Dworetzky talking about the wisdom of “concentrating our day-to-day expenditures to make the dollars go further.”
And there were frequent references to the District’s uncertain budget situation for next school year – another reason to look for savings on school facilities – though Nunery observed, “That’s not the driver for this. Closing school buildings doesn’t necessarily save you lots of money.”
Floyd and Nunery took pains to highlight that the master plan is more than a process for closing schools.
Floyd emphasized a number of other goals: the process is a chance to re-examine schools’ grade configuration; to set standards for elementary, middle, high school, and specialized facilities; to thoroughly evaluate the condition of facilities; to draw up plans for capital improvements; and to figure out what to do with surplus real estate.
She added that the issues and needs are very different in different parts of the system. “This cannot be one size fits all,” she said.
In fact, her presentation showed that in the East Region of the District, high schools are filled to 105 percent of capacity, and elementary schools are close to capacity. One other region operating near full capacity is the Northeast, with both elementary and high schools averaging about 90 percent full.
At the other extreme, in the Central region, high schools are on average only half full and elementary schools are operating at 57 percent of capacity. In five other regions, schools average below 75 percent capacity.
Middle schools are the most under-utilized overall, with those in the South, Southwest, and West regions being less than half full on average.
As for public participation, Floyd outlined a three-phase process. The first is to provide the same overview presented to the SRC, “to make sure people understand the rationale and the urgency” of the process, she said. Six community meetings are scheduled for November and December, and a report will be provided to the SRC in December.
Beginning in late January, in phase two, Floyd said, “we will go back out to the community with data.” Ten meetings are planned, with the schools divvied up among 10 “planning districts.” Those meetings may be the first time community members will hear and get to respond to District recommendations about specific schools.
A third phase, with 10 more meetings in the same planning districts in March or April is when the District will present "final decisions" – in time for those decisions to be reflected in the budget for next school year.
Community activist Venard Johnson reminded the commission in public testimony that for a number of communities, the recent history of school closings “has not always been a positive experience.”
Floyd later said the District has learned from those experiences that “it’s important to be open, transparent, and inclusive throughout the process,” adding that “paying attention to the timing” of the process is also key.
“We’re listening, we’re listening hard,” Nunery added.