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An interview with Mayor Nutter about school closings

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

Late last month, the Notebook interviewed Mayor Michael Nutter on the topic of school closings. The School District, in December, announced a plan to close 37 schools. Since then, the District has held many community and individual school meetings where the dominant reaction has been opposition and anger. The School Reform Commission is now planning to make a decision March 7, after a round of hearings from Thursday evening, Feb. 21, through Saturday, Feb. 23.

Here are some highlights from the interview:

  • Citing the District’s financial realities and the decision of parents to leave District-run schools, Mayor Nutter supports the closings — although he says that the District is listening to feedback and that he wouldn’t be surprised if the adopted plan looks different from the initial proposal.
  • The mayor defends his decision not to attend any of the community meetings himself. The decisions must be Superintendent Hite’s and the SRC’s, not the mayor’s, he said.
  • He chalks up the opposition and the Council resolution supporting a moratorium on closings to, “This is Philadelphia.”
  • He says that it is important that additional investment be made in the receiving schools: “You can’t do education on the cheap.”

Following is an edited transcript of the interview.

Notebook: At hearings and at School Reform Commission meetings, people have asked “Where’s the mayor?” and complained that you have not been visible on this issue.

Mayor Nutter: I had a full-blown press conference in the hallway. Same day when Dr. Hite made his announcement about the closures. … He was standing next to me.

Notebook: The Council just passed a resolution calling for a one-year moratorium on the closings. Do you consider that a vote of “no confidence” in the District’s plans?

Nutter: I’m aware that there was a resolution passed. I’m not surprised. You know, there were announced closures last year, and this is Philadelphia. So of course there are people who are opposed. I understand that and I respect that.

Notebook: Have you been keeping up with what’s happening in the hearings? People have been complaining that the closings are ill-thought out.

Nutter: We have to start with a fundamental baseline of information here: 70,000 vacant seats, 53,000 vacant seats in the buildings that are open and operating, another 17,000 in buildings that are closed. We have schools that are operating at 25 percent capacity. You still have to open them; you still have to heat them; you still have to put teachers in them, maintenance staff, etc, etc. It’s a lot of money in a School District that has a $1.3 billion five-year-plan deficit.

So it’s certainly not a surprise that some schools would be proposed for closure. It’s not a surprise that many would be opposed. On the other hand, the reason there are so many vacant seats is because children and their parents decided to leave those schools to go somewhere else. They moved away from school X and went to school Y or Z or somewhere else a few blocks away or halfway across the city. So parents with children made a decision to depopulate certain schools for a variety of reasons. You can’t afford to keep that level of physical plant open, especially when you’re hemorrhaging money.

So a significant amount of time and effort and research has gone into the Facilities Master Plan. And I am sure that in many instances, they got it right.

No one likes closing a school, and no one likes particularly closing any facility in this city, for that matter. But we have to deal with the reality of our educational and financial circumstances. It is not fair to continue to send children to a school that is underperforming. It’s not fair to the children and teachers and administrators to ask them to go into a deteriorated, poorly functioning building on a regular basis. So there’s just no getting around the fact that some amount of downsizing has to take place. And more importantly, additional investment needs to be made in the receiving schools in terms of programs and services and supports for the children, in terms of any safety-related issues. But we need to stay focused on what is in the best interest of the children of this city, while at the same time we will hear from many adults, parents and community members, people who have gone to some of the schools that are proposed to be closed, who will not like it.

The community meetings … clearly Dr. Hite and his team are listening to the community. Because they really are listening to the community, I don’t know that it will be 37 schools, and I don’t know that it will be every one of the schools that was on that list.

[Closing schools] is not a unique experience to Philadelphia. It’s going on in New York; it’s going on in Chicago; it’s going on in many big-city and medium-sized city school systems all across the United States.

Public education … is a very complicated enterprise, and the cuts that the District has suffered over the past couple of years, certainly from the state, while the city at the same time has increased its support in the last couple of years, has created a dire fiscal picture that causes Superintendent Hite and the SRC to make any number of decisions that they don’t like making, children will not like, and parents won’t like, and taxpayers won’t like. But tough decisions, nonetheless, have to be made. And that’s where we are right now.

Notebook: There’s a lot of fear people aren’t going to be in a better situation. People don’t think that students will necessarily be going to better schools. Students from Overbrook and Gompers will be transferred to Beeber, which is on the persistently dangerous list. There is not one high school left in North Philadelphia between Ben Franklin and Gratz.

Nutter: Well, I understand that. And the District will have to address that … but … the parents and children in those communities made a decision of their own, for whatever reason, to move their child from one school, District-managed, to another school. They didn’t move out of Philadelphia. They just left that part of the system. That was their choice. We believe that parents should have as many high-quality educational options as possible. They make those decisions. They depopulated those buildings. And you reach a certain point, especially when you’re at 20-25 percent utilization, and in many instances in some fairly underperforming buildings, the physical plant of those buildings, you have to question whether or not you continue to send children to a building that’s in poor shape and an educational program that’s not at the level that is good or superior. So it’s rebalancing, based on what parents and kids have done, and certainly again, even in the neighborhood that you’ve mentioned, there are other schools. They may not be District-managed, but even those schools are still public schools paid for by public dollars.

Notebook: Do you agree with Superintendent Hite, who said that he thought the city had reached a saturation point of charters? There is the financial issue of how much they cost and the academic issue of how they are performing academically.

Nutter: I think what Dr. Hite is trying to do, based on the vision that he laid out in early January, is to provide the quality of education that would encourage and inspire the parent to keep their child in a District-managed school. I mean, you can’t … just like the District, you can’t open a charter school if you don’t have any kids. If more and more children and their parents, if more and more children are staying in District-managed schools because they see additional resources and supports going into those schools, then they will stay. I think the real question that folks need to ask is what is it that parents are finding so much more attractive [in charters]? Is it the program? Is it safety? Is it motivation of the teachers? Is it the quality of the principal? Is it the longer hours? Is it the longer school days, the longer school year? I mean, what we all should be trying to figure out is why are parents making a conscious decision to leave this school to go to that school. What is it that they found so attractive in the school that they transferred to or tried to get into?

Notebook: You said the city increased its resources to the District while the state has cut back. Last year you sought to raise additional money for the District through the Actual Value Initiative or AVI [a revaluation of city properties to conform more closely to their actual value]. Is the city prepared to increase resources to the District again?

Nutter: We’re going to collect the same amount [through AVI] in ’14 as we did in ’13. … And I have said publicly that I’m not expecting to send over a request for a tax increase. I acknowledge that the District has significant financial challenges. We’re focused on getting the AVI, as we’ve outlined it, completed through this current budget process. We’ll see what happens with regard to the District’s finances, their negotiations, additional savings that they may be able to generate, what’s going on with the state budget, those kinds of issues. And we’ll go from there.

Notebook: And the other big issue, uncollected taxes. Is that bearing any fruit?

Nutter: Significant. We’ve had some decent gains in recent times. We are significantly stepping up in our efforts. The General Assembly Philly House delegation introduced a series of bills, one of which was to help us be that much more efficient and aggressive in our tax collections. But we clearly are devoting time, effort, and resources in that regard as well.

Notebook: One of the groups calling for a moratorium on the school closures has said that the city should collect more money from nonprofits, including universities and hospitals, through Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOTS). Other cities do this. [One-third of the property in the city is tax-exempt.]

Nutter: We had an ongoing conversation about PILOTS. We were taking a second look at that whole issue because of a recent court case. But those kinds of programs usually take some amount of time to put into effect and involve some level of negotiation. Again, it’s certainly a potentially viable idea. But the challenge here is that school is open right now. The District has a $1.3 billion five-year deficit. And so, it is exceedingly difficult to make additional plans on dollars that you [can’t guarantee] that you’re going to collect.

Notebook: In some of the other cities that have closed schools, they vastly overestimated how much money they would save from closures. They didn’t save as much as they thought. There were all these transition costs that came in. [The School District is counting on $28 million in savings, but say that money at least in the first year will be offset by transition costs.] Are you confident in all these numbers?

Nutter: As confident as I can be. Good and smart people worked on these issues. Of course, I’m hopeful in assuming that they’ve looked at all the vagaries and elements and fine print of all these kinds of issues. Again, there’s just no getting around the fact that they can’t afford it any longer. [The city is] working with the District from a commerce side of this to look at repurposing buildings, sale of buildings, reuse of buildings, all of those kinds of issues, so that we don’t have these, in many instances, pretty huge, if not massive, structures sitting dark and naked in our communities. That’s not a good outcome.

Notebook: People at the community meetings are making counterproposals, like in Germantown, to put Fulton Elementary School in Germantown High and make it a K-12, and also include a Head Start and community-based health clinic in the building. They are afraid that closing both Germantown and Fulton will cause decline in the surrounding neighborhood.

Nutter: I don’t know enough of the details of all that. That’s the kind of thing that will come up in those meetings. Dr. Hite and his team will get into the intricate details. I mean, that’s not for me to [decide]. Ultimately, the decisions made here will be made by the superintendent [and] the School Reform Commission. They will decide what schools stay open, what schools close, not me. We are actively and certainly paying attention to what’s going on. We interact with the District on a more than regular basis. … We are certainly partners in this work of insuring that children get a high-quality education. But I’m not down there figuring out what color drapes to put up or what paint should be on the walls, or what lesson plan the 2nd grade teacher is [using]. Those are educational and operational decisions. The superintendent, with a focused and committed SRC, has been through a Facilities Master Plan with an excruciating amount of detail and engagement, and ultimately they’ll make those decisions. But we are actively concerned and paying attention to what’s going on. But the kind of scenario that you laid out, I’m going to let the educators figure that one out.

Notebook: Dr. Hite’s reform plan, it is ambitious, but he says it is revenue-neutral. Do you think it’s realistically revenue-neutral and able to accomplish everything he wants to? For instance, he wants to improve professional development for teachers.

Nutter: Well, no one can be against that.

Notebook: Right, but it doesn’t happen magically.

Nutter: No, nothing happens magically. He should be commended for having an ambitious plan. Obviously, given our financial picture, I’m hopeful that it is relatively low cost or no cost. But the real issue is we need to invest in our teachers. We need to invest in our principals. We need to invest in our administrators. And God knows, we need to invest in our children. You can’t do education on the cheap. It just doesn’t work that way.