Hundreds of students, parents, teachers and activists packed into Thursday night's meeting of the School Reform Commission to challenge the Philadelphia district's controversial proposal to close 37 city schools.
During a marathon meeting that lasted over four hours, the commissioners heard a long list of complaints, accusations, and counterproposals from more than 30 speakers. They also approved the sale of three school buildings that are currently vacant, including the historic former home of West Philadelphia High.
For many in the crowd, the evening began with a candlelight vigil organized by the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS), an alliance of labor and community groups. About 200 protestors marched up Broad Street from City Hall to school district headquarters, waving signs and chanting "save our schools."
"I'm worried about my kids," said Hakim Lane, the father of two children at Duckrey Elementary, one of a dozen schools in North Philadelphia targeted for closure.
If approved, the district's school closing plan would result in roughly 17,000 children being reassigned to new schools, most of which perform no better academically than those they currently attend. Officials say the closings are needed in order to save roughly $28 million annually. Opposition has been intense.
"These are incredibly painful discussions," acknowledged Superintendent William Hite at the outset of Thursday's meeting. "I know how much each school means to its respective community."
Contingents from Bok Technical High, McCloskey Elementary, the Philadelphia Military Academy at Elverson, and the Promise Academy at University City High were among those who packed the auditorium at 440 North Broad.
"University City is the best thing that ever happened to me," said senior Christian Warrick, flanked by four of his peers, all wearing crisp blue Promise Academy blazers.
"I refuse to see my family torn apart. My heart just won't allow it."
University City holds more than 2,500 students students, but currently enrolls only 500. Under the district's plan, University City students would be reassigned to either West Philadelphia High, Overbrook High, Sayre High or the High School of the Future.
The students, who attended all four of the community forums hosted by the district in recent days, said they've come to understand that officials need to address the district's inventory of half-empty facilities, including University City High. But they told the SRC they are fighting not for a building, but the academic program and culture inside it.
"We don't want to merge with another school," said senior Glen Casey. "We just want to be together."
Perspectives to consider
Again and again, speakers questioned the closing plan. Some accused the district of not fighting for more funding, while others complained that traditional public schools are being "starved" while charter schools are being expanded at a rapid — and costly — clip.
"How come neighborhood schools, where my children and the majority of our children go, are expected to swallow the district's profligacy and make up for it in the form of closed schools?" asked parent Rebecca Poyourow.
Kia Stroman, the mother of two children at McCloskey Elementary in Northwest Philadelphia, was one of many argued that the district's sweeping recommendations are poorly thought out.
"I want to know how does the plan support teaching and learning for our students," said Stroman, ticking off a list of questions about how the proposal to move McCloskey students to F.S. Edmonds Elementary would impact class size, safety, and student commutes.
"The bottom line is if you can't answer these questions today, that tells me you can't make an informed decision to close McCloskey," she said.
Throughout the meeting, the commissioners listened quietly, occasionally asking follow-up questions or requesting new information or analysis from district staff. After the meeting, SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos said he welcomed the feedback.
"I have every expectation at that end of this process, not everybody will happy, but at least we can be comfortable that we've been fair and the decisions [have been] considered," he said.
Three buildings sold
Ramos also said he was encouraged that the district was able to sell three more empty buildings, saying the moves would bring resources back to classrooms. The buildings that sold were:
• The former home of West Philadelphia High, located at 4700 Walnut Street, will be sold for $6 million to WPHS Venture Partners.
• The Educational Services Building at 427 Monroe Street in Queen Village will be sold for $1,205,000 to Queen Village Lofts, LP.
• The former Roberto Clemente Middle School at 3961 North 5th Street will be sold for $1 to a "for-profit entity to be formed and owned by principals of Nueva Esperanza, LLC."
All three of the properties are slated to be converted to residential units.
The $1 sale price for Clemente initially raised eyebrows. But district staff said the building, which is contaminated with asbestos and has sat vacant for a decade, had been appraised as worthless.
"The condition of Clemente is worse than deplorable," said Art Haywood, the vice president of Nueva Esperanza.
Haywood said his group wants to turn the school into low-income housing.
The resolutions authorizing all of the sales include provisions to prevent speculation and encourage the buyers to move quickly to redevelop the properties.
All three passed unanimously, 4-0. Lorene Cary is still on a medical leave from the commission.
Also approved by the SRC Thursday was a $32.5 million contract renewal with the Maramont Corporation, which provides meals to district students. Officials said the renewal would increase the number of district students who have access to full service cafeterias from 32 percent now to 51 percent by the 2013-14 school year.
The commissioners also discussed a proposed policy, long in the works, that would stiffen the requirements that companies seeking to contract with the district not be tax delinquent.
Each year, Philadelphia schools are deprived of hundreds of millions of dollars in possible revenue because of tax deadbeats.
"We need to make a statement," said commissioner Wendell Pritchett.
The policy could come up for a vote in January.