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District: Despite budget woes, ‘we will make it work’

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

Although they are facing a $629 million budget shortfall, District officials are adamant that their facilities master plan is not about saving money, but completely redesigning the way the District does business.

Rather than seek targeted school closures, say officials, they hope to dispose of up to 50 buildings, change grade configurations, meet new school size guidelines, alter feeder patterns, and radically overhaul the way the District delivers career and technical education, special education, early childhood education, services for English language learners, and athletics.

But with no money and a scheduled 50 percent cut in central office staff, will they be able to make it work – and should they try?

To help inform and engage the public in the facilities master planning process, the Notebook and PlanPhilly have launched a new reporting partnership. Last week, District Deputy for Strategic Initiatives Danielle Floyd and consultant Tracy Richter of DeJong-Richter sat down with the Notebook for an extensive 90-minute interview. Each day this week, the Notebook and/or PlanPhilly will run an edited excerpt of the transcript from that interview focusing on a key question about how the facilities master plan will work in practice. (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday)

Today’s question: How are budget concerns shaping the facilities master planning process?

Notebook: Why 50 buildings?

Floyd: I think when we took a look at our current enrollment, our projected enrollment, the number of facilities that we operate, our annexes, how much we lease, who we lease to, when those leases end…There’s clearly opportunities here to be more efficient with how we deliver programs and services…So I think taking a look at all of those pieces, that’s how we…came up to 50 facilities.

Notebook: So is there a list of 50 facilities floating around?

Floyd: No, there isn’t.

Notebook: You’ve said this is a much more comprehensive approach than other districts have taken.

Richter: Philadelphia has taken a more proactive approach. A lot of times what happens is school districts have to become more reactive to budgets and legislative initiatives that come down from state governments. And so what Philadelphia has done is taken the approach to say, “Look, there is a lot more that goes into a facility plan than to say we need [to cut] this many seats.” I think the first step that Philadelphia did was the right step.

Notebook: Tell me more about the decision to take such a comprehensive approach.

Floyd: Number one, I would say if you look at our strategic plan, Imagine 2014, it lists under world class operations the creation of a facilities master plan…. This [facilities] process is to complement the academic initiatives and priorities of the School District. I think we got more aggressive about it this summer, when we did a request for proposals for a consulting firm that could help the District analyze its facilities, look at enrollment trends, help us project what those were going to be moving forward.

Notebook: How is the District going to afford all this? How will it be staffed?

Floyd: By moving through this process, it gives you the opportunity to be more efficient…I think we have really smart people here and a tremendous amount of resources. Is it going to be tough? Absolutely.

Notebook: From the research, it seems that the success of a re-do of a school is heavily dependent on good planning and a lot of time to prepare.

Richter: A lot of this stuff has been centralized now. When we have CTE, ELL, special ed, all at the same table, that becomes a lot more efficient…I think this process has allowed the District to centralize a lot of [its] thought-making process.

Notebook: How will there be budget and staff for the on-the-ground changes that have to happen in schools?

Floyd: I think we have mechanisms in place. We know the different people who have to be at the table. We know [information technology] has to be there, food services, the principal, people from the assistant superintendent’s office.

We have checklists that we know we need to follow. We’re not making it up as we go along. We’ve done this work before. I don’t think people should assume that we don’t have protocols in place. We do. We would meet on a weekly basis to talk about transition and what that looks like, and meet with student placement to make sure those kids are OK, making sure we are abiding by all the collective bargaining dates that we have to pay attention to…we’re paying attention to that.

We have all the people at the table to be able to do that. It’s not piecemeal. It’s having everybody at the table to help you do it.

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