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Benjamin Herold / The Notebook

It’s not clear schools will open without AVI, Knudsen says

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

by Benjamin Herold
for the Notebook and WHYY/NewsWorks

Without the help of City Council, the District won’t be able to open all its schools in September, Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen told the School Reform Commission on Tuesday night.

At issue is Mayor Nutter’s proposed change to how city property taxes are assessed. The so-called Actual Value Initiative would yield desperately needed revenue for the District, but has met opposition in Council and among some neighborhood groups.

“Were we not to get the $94 million from the AVI initiative, it isn’t clear that we could, in fact, open schools this fall,” Knudsen said. “We would have to make very deliberate choices.”

Listen to reporter Benjamin Herold’s radio report for WHYY.

Knudsen’s testimony came at a special School Reform Commission hearing at which the public had its first opportunity to respond to the District’s dire 2012-13 budget projections, as well as a recently announced “transformation blueprint” that would radically overhaul public education in the city through dozens of school closures, further expansion of charter schools, and the breakup of the District into independently run “achievement networks.”

A number of speakers, including parent Rebecca Poyourow, blasted the District’s new transformation plan.

“It is at best foolish and at worst devious for you to choose this moment of fiscal crisis to foist this poorly conceived and primarily ideological reorganization scheme on Philadelphia’s schools,” Poyourow said.

The District is facing a $218 million shortfall next school year – even if Council does pass AVI.

Knudsen would not say how many schools might not open should AVI fail to pass. But he emphasized that school budgets had already been cut to the bone and could not be scaled back any further.

“After careful analysis, we concluded that we simply could not cut more from the current structure without sacrificing the things that make education meaningful,” he told the SRC.

The 2012-13 school year should be viewed as a “transition year,” he said. Although individual school budgets would be kept at current levels, District officials would start laying the foundation for “fundamental change in both the academic and operational elements of our system.”

The overhaul will include the closure of up to 40 school buildings in fall 2013, a move District officials hope will save $33 million in 2013-14. He said the projected savings of $850,000 per closed building are entirely from facilities costs and could be realized even if a closed school’s academic program was relocated in another District facility.

Knudsen said the targeted schools have not yet been identified, but that recommendations are expected to be made public in “late summer or early September.”

SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos acknowledged that it would be difficult to duplicate the level of engagement and responsiveness from the recently completed first round of the District’s facilities master planning process.

“I think the public felt that everybody was heard and we acted fairly” in voting to close eight schools but spare two others, Ramos said.

Holding hearings for 40 schools is “certainly a bigger challenge at a bigger scale,” he added.

Knudsen also told the SRC that a Request for Proposals from groups interested in managing a pilot “achievement network” of 20-25 schools as part of the District’s decentralization plan could go out in the next few weeks.

Piloting the model is “essential,” said Knudsen, so that any issues can be identified and ironed out before a widespread phasing in of up to eight such networks in 2013-14.

Parent Christine Carlson was one of several speakers who urged the SRC to reconsider the plan, however.

“I just hope your heads don’t fall prey to the corporate-speak that has been brought upon us and infused into this transformational blueprint,” Carlson said.

“Putting the onus of accountability on outside management companies only serves to relieve the District and the city from its responsibility of being held accountable to its public schools.”

Others decried the reorganization plan as a missed opportunity and a repeat of the District’s failed experiment with educational management organizations after the state takeover in 2002.

“I feel like we got a bait and switch,” said parent activist Helen Gym in her testimony. Gym is also a Notebook leadership board member.

“If you had given us $1.4 million, eight weeks of time, and access to your staff, we would darn well have come up with a better plan,” said Gym, referring to the role of the Boston Consulting Group in developing the District’s transformation blueprint.

The commissioners, however, stressed that the plan was still in development.

“I want to think more about what plan we have, what about it is useful, and what about it might be in the way of what it’s aiming to do,” said Commissioner Lorene Cary. “That’s what this time is about.”

Other news from the budget discussion included:

  • Current Promise Academies will continue to operate next year, but with reduced support. Staff would not commit to the further expansion of the District’s internal school turnaround model for 2013 and beyond, but Knudsen said he anticipated that there would likely be additional schools recommended for conversion to Renaissance charters next year.
  • CAO Penny Nixon said the District hopes to have all teachers assigned to classrooms by June 30 this year and that a new “blended” model of professional development including online courses would be rolled out shortly afterwards.
  • Summer school will be eliminated for all students except those who need it to graduate or are in grant-funded summer school programs.
  • OverNearly 100 “supplementary” counselor positions will be eliminated. Knudsen did not explain what made a counselor supplementary.