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No school-specific info in this phase of facility planning

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

As the second round of community meetings around the Facilities Master Plan got underway, District officials shared region-wide data on building conditions and school vacancy rates, but avoided disclosing information about individual schools.

Eventual school closings are a “stark reality,” Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery told more than 70 people who turned out for the first of nine community meetings at Germantown High School on Feb. 3.

But he and others tried to reassure the attendees that the goal of the planning was to enhance educational options, provide more equity in programming, minimize student travel, and create a more efficient school district.

They are looking at “where we can improve what’s accessible to every student,” Nunery said.

A PowerPoint presentation provided a statistical overview of the 50 schools in the Northwest region by size, grade configuration, utilization, and building conditions. Attendees learned, for instance, that 10 of the elementary school buildings were in relatively good condition, 19 in fair condition, and 5 in poor condition – meaning that the cost of renovating them could exceed the cost of replacing them.

Nunery said that for schools in good condition – those with a low Facilities Condition Index, renovation costs would be about one-third of replacement. For the majority of schools in the “fair” or medium FCI range, it’s important to do enough maintenance so that they don’t slip into the “poor” category, he said.

A matrix showed that there are two elementary schools in the region that are both in poor physical condition and severely underutilized, and about 15 within a zone in which either the condition or the utilization or both falls below par. There are also four schools that are above capacity.

But no names were attached, to the dismay of some at the meeting.

In facilitated small group discussions after the presentation, people were asked, among other things, to specify what additional information they would like. Many said they wanted the District to name the schools.

But it’s clear the District plans on holding off on names for as long as possible. On Jan. 20, a District spokesperson wrote in an email to the Notebook, “We are planning to provide school by school capacity, utilization and facility condition information at the next phase of public meetings,” but officials later dropped that plan.

If the schools on the matrix were specified, “people would make the automatic assumption that we would close that school,” said Tracy Richter from DeJong-Richter, a consulting firm that has worked with school districts across the country on facilities planning. “And that’s the message we don’t want to send. We want to get the message across that it’s not just those factors” that will be considered when the decisions are made.

While the presentation included a matrix for the region’s 33 elementary schools, it did not similarly break down its 8 middle and 10 high schools, although it said the information was available to those who asked.

Nunery, Richter, and Deputy for Strategic Initiatives Danielle Floyd did disclose some new information in their nearly hourlong presentation.

For instance, the District has 84 schools with fewer than 400 students, 151 schools with populations between 400 and 800, and 48 at 800 or above.

And while the city’s school-age population is expected to further decline between now and 2015, it may then level off. Hispanic and Asian populations are growing, while the Black and White populations are declining, according to demographic data.

In the Northwest region, kindergarten and first grade enrollment is actually projected to edge up over the next five years. The region has 28,602 students and a capacity of 42,812 seats, a 67 percent utilization rate. The ideal, Richter said, is 85 percent.

Some who attended said that they learned a lot. Stephanie Wilkins, a parent whose daughter attends Rowan Elementary, called the evening “very informative.”

“I’m really glad they want parents to have input,” she said.

Some people, though, were reluctant to believe that the District truly wanted their input and felt the die has already been cast.

“I think they have already made their decisions and are just trying to make us feel inclusive,” said Vera Primus, an accountant and event planner who is president of Germantown High School’s alumni association. “I sort of think that they know what they are going to do, and they want to ease it to us softly.”

She said that the assigned exercise, asking the small groups to rank their “must-haves” in any school, was pointless.

The long list of possible “facility must-haves” and “educational must-haves” that was offered included everything mentioned at the first round of meetings. Items that are not optional, like math, literacy, and social studies, were listed along with items like art, music, tutoring, vocational training, and athletics in which there is some discretion.

“Some of the information in the breakout sessions was not well put together,” Primus said.

In addition to ranking their facilities and educational must-haves, the groups were asked to answer three questions:

  • “I will feel this process is successful if…;”
  • "I would like more information about…;” and
  • “Something that needs to be addressed is…”

Parent ombudsman Helen Brown from Wagner Middle School felt positive about the evening. “I’m glad the District thought to engage the community before they made the decisions [to close schools]; it’s better than if parents just get a letter." But others said that the real test will be if they see any changes to the District’s plan as a result of the discussions.

On Saturday morning Feb. 5, about 60 people attended a similar meeting in the West region. More meetings are scheduled through Feb. 17.