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District responds to commissioners’ questions on school closings

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

Just hours before tonight’s long-awaited vote on the proposed closure of nine schools, the District has released a wealth of information about each of its recommendations.

A detailed spreadsheet projects that closing all nine schools would save the District just over $8 million for next school year. The two most hotly contested closures, E.M. Stanton Elementary in South Philadelphia and Sheppard Elementary in West Kensington, would save the District a projected $850,000 and $1.2 million, respectively.

The District also released an 18-page document with questions from members of the School Reform Commission and responses from District staff.

The commissioners appear quite interested in the viability of various options for keeping Stanton open.

The District has recommended that the small, but high-performing neighborhood school at 17th and Christian Streets be closed because of small enrollment, underutilization, and an outdated facility. But, District staff says, the SRC could instead heed the urgings of Stanton’s many supporters and try to increase enrollment by making the school a citywide admission school with no boundaries, increasing enrollment through the No Child Left Behind School Choice process, or allowing Stanton to continue admitting a high proportion of students from outside the school’s geographic boundary.

However, “none of these options address the age or condition of the facility,” the staff writes.

Keeping Stanton open would require more than $6.6 million of capital work – including $3.3 million to replace the boiler – over the next three years.

“These estimated costs are not funded in the Capital Improvement Program and dollars will need to be identified to complete these projects,” District staff writes.

At Sheppard, meanwhile, the SRC appears torn between the ongoing costs of operating a 114-year-old facility and concerns about increasing blight in an already-struggling community. Other concerns were forcing young children to make longer commutes through unsafe neighborhoods and losing students to charters if Sheppard is no longer an option.

“Is it not likely that some Sheppard parents would send their children to Pan American [Charter School] if Sheppard closes? Would that not have negative financial implications for the School District?” the commissioners asked.

Over the next three years, District staff estimated, Sheppard will require $2.7 million in capital improvements, and there is currently funding for none of them.

Other topics the SRC asked questions about include:

  • Supports for schools identified as re-assignment options for students from Harrison Elementary.
  • The pros and cons of phasing out Pepper Middle rather than closing it immediately.
  • The value of possibly maintaining single-gender education at Rhodes, FitzSimons, and/or Strawberry Mansion.
  • Reassignment options for ESOL students at Drew Elementary.

A marathon meeting with more than 80 speakers expected kicks off tonight at 5:30. We will be reporting from the meeting, and I will discuss the vote on NewsWorks Tonight at 6 p.m.

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