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New estimate: District has 70,000 empty seats

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

There are now 70,000 empty seats in District schools, according to data presented to the School Reform Commission Wednesday – more than are in Lincoln Financial Field.

With a current student population around 155,000, this means that buildings currently being owned and maintained by the District are nearly one-third empty.

"On average," the report said, "one in five property tax dollars is going towards funding empty seats."

Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery said that school closings, consolidations, and co-locations – in which a District and a charter school share the same building – are all being considered. A new round of public meetings to discuss the options starts on February 1.

The District lost 11,000 students during the past five years and is projected to lose another 9,000 to 10,000 over the next five years – a combination of declining birth rates, people moving out of the city, and the growth of charter schools.

The new estimates came out of a new facilities master plan, the first comprehensive study of space done in the District in memory. Nunery and Deputy for Strategic Initiatives Danielle Floyd told the SRC that while elementary schools are at 82 percent capacity, secondary schools – middle and high – are at 59 percent.

Until recently, the number cited by officials as the District’s excess capacity was 45,000, close to the number in a study done by Athenian Properties in 2009. The latest calculation, conducted for the District by the URS Corporation and DeJong-Richter, assumes that classrooms in the lower grades would accommodate 26 students and 28 in upper grades.

Addressing this overcapacity is urgent because money spent on empty seats "can’t be redeployed to the classroom," Nunery said. "We have to make sure the match between enrollment and facility use is as high as it can be."

But the District has steadfastly declined to speculate as to how many schools may end up being closed.

Nunery said the priorities in the process are to provide equitable services across the District and promote student achievement. Schools today have "significant variation" in quality, programming, and cost-effectiveness, he said.

As for the physical conditions of schools, most are at least in fair condition, he said, but the cost of capital repairs is still in the $4 billion range for the 28.5 million square feet in more than 280 buildings. On a newly calculated "facility condition index," 26 schools have a high score, meaning that the cost of needed repairs approaches the cost of replacing the building.

Nunery and Floyd said that schools now have 20 different grade configurations, and the District will be looking to achieve more standardization. Floyd said that they are looking at whether to re-emphasize middle school settings as opposed to K-8 schools. "We’ve concluded we need to have a balance; now it’s tilted one way," she said.

The prior superintendent, Paul Vallas, embarked on a capital plan to build more new small high schools and convert most elementary schools to K-8. Vallas did not do a comprehensive master plan before taking those actions.

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman appears skeptical of both those priorities. Floyd said several times that K-8 schools don’t offer middle-school aged children a variety of experiences, like sports. Same with small high schools, which may not be able to offer a wide variety of courses.

SRC member David Girard diCarlo said it is important for the public to understand that while this process will eventually make the District more efficient, it is not the answer to its looming budget woes.
"It’s important for our constituencies to understand that this is not a magic bullet to help our budgetary issues," he said. "It will help it, but is is really an exercise to achieve more efficiencies and deliver our product more effectively."

Lori Shorr, Mayor Nutter’s chief education officer, said that the city is heavily involved in the planning process. "As a city, I hope we can rise to the occasion, figuring out as a community what to do with these schools," she said. "We have to look at school closing in relationship to the whole community they sit in."

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