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SRC to begin ‘right-sizing’

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

The long-awaited facilities master plan, the District’s effort to downsize its physical plant to better match its shrinking enrollment, will be phased in over three years, with details about any first-round school closings unveiled in early April. [Update: The District has announced that there will be no closings in 2011 to allow more time for public input on the plan.]

The SRC is scheduled to hold a special April 7 meeting to hear about "the education framework, current state of the District’s facilities, projected enrollment and demographic trends," said spokesperson Elizabeth Childs. The plan will detail "the three phases of adjustments"– presumably clarifying the timeline for closing and consolidating schools.

In advance of the meeting, the District was carefully guarding information about the extent of school closings.

State law requires a public notice and hearing followed by a 90-day window before the SRC can vote to shut a school. Because of that waiting period, the timeline will be a tight one for the District to close schools as early as September.

Childs said that the SRC would vote in May on "policies, a draft plan and phase one implementation."

According to the primary contractor for the plan, URS Corporation, there are 70,000 empty seats in the District, 12,000 in already vacated buildings. Enrollment has declined by 11,000 students in the last five years. URS predicts that pattern will continue due to fewer school-aged children and an exodus to charters.

URS says the ideal ratio between a building’s actual enrollment and capacity is 85 percent. Now, average utilization is 67 percent.

By downsizing its inventory, the master plan will help the District address deferred building maintenance and run more cost-effectively. It also promises to distribute resources more equitably. Any estimate of cost-savings would come after the April recommendations, Childs said.

Separate from any mandated school closing hearings will be a third round of community meetings, beginning April 9.

The public will have the opportunity to "comment on proposed policies to guide right-sizing of schools and the District, see the framework for decision-making in future phases, and learn how to access school-specific data," according to Childs.

Officials have repeatedly emphasized that not just a building’s condition and utilization, but factors including academic performance, access to transportation, and historical status, would figure in closing decisions.

The early April SRC presentation will be the first time the public will have the opportunity to react to school-specific information from the District.

In two previous rounds of community meetings, the District made its case for the need to close schools, but held back information about specific buildings. It presented general data on regional demographic changes, grade configurations, facility conditions, and building utilization.

In meetings held in February, one chart gave a hint of which schools were underutilized and expensive to repair. But it withheld facility names, representing schools on a grid only as unidentified bubbles. Seeing bubbles but no names, many participants left those meetings frustrated.

The Notebook obtained and posted on its website in March an early draft of a URS document listing data for individual schools.

That document, dated January 5, lists each school’s Facilities Condition Index (the cost of necessary building repairs compared to the cost to replace the building), utilization compared to capacity, and School Performance Index. The accompanying story drew attention to some buildings with high repair costs and low utilization.

The District protested the release of the document as "irresponsible," saying it was a "preliminary draft" with "errors."

In addition to the facilities master plan recommendations, the District will present two policy proposals to the SRC – to provide "clear guidelines" for the reuse of school buildings and "standard criteria" for the rightsizing process.

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