By Alan Butkovitz
The School District of Philadelphia faces major challenges as both a financial and an educational endeavor. For the past 15 years the School District has spent beyond its means. The “brand name” of Philadelphia public schools has been tarnished, as evidence by the flood of students into the burgeoning charter-school sector, drawn by the promise of better and safer schools.
Whether it is due to poor economic conditions or bad policy decisions, financial problems have deteriorated, or so the public has been told, into a full-blown state of emergency, with the entire $2.3 billion enterprise on the verge of collapse. Only through a $300 million bond issue has the District found enough cash to operate for the 2013 school year. In short, there are very real financial issues that have led to the latest round of dramatic proposals to fundamentally change the structure, scope, and scale of the District’s operations.
As the City’s financial watchdog, my office is compelled to evaluate the financial plan submitted by the School District—to ensure the citizens of Philadelphia that the numbers add up. We also have a responsibility to evaluate whether the plan is financially sound for the District, as it will ultimately displace thousands of students and could have devastating repercussions for many neighborhoods.
In a prior review of vacant school facilities conducted by my office, we found schools that were closed and remained vacant for many years had become havens for illegal and dangerous activity. In the most egregious case, a vacant school was ravaged by a four-alarm fire that put neighbors and firefighters at risk.
Our office is currently analyzing the latest proposal to close 37 district-run schools. This massive and imminent set of closures will affect 15,000 students, disproportionately concentrated in some of Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods; nearly 80 percent of the affected students are African-American – in a District that is 55 percent black. The District claims that the proposal will benefit its finances in two ways: first, by providing a short-term revenue enhancement of $28 million from the sale of the surplus property; and second, a longer-term savings in operating expenses of $33 million annually. In order to evaluate these claims, we have requested the District to provide the requisite data.
In light of recent tax increases to provide more funding for the ailing District, Philadelphians have a right to an accurate accounting of the expenses associated with decommissioning, maintaining, and securing sites; moving and storing district property; making improvements to the schools receiving displaced students; and transitioning students – especially across neighborhood boundaries, including transporting these students to their new schools and ensuring their safety.
If recent endeavors by school districts in other cities are any indication, the School District’s projected savings may not materialize. In six cities examined in a 2011 Pew study, most districts fell short of projections by 20-40 percent. In Washington, DC, audits revealed that district leadership underestimated the costs of closure and consolidation by as much as 50 percent.
But we also need to know whether the District is adequately taking into account academic performance as a criterion for determining closures. Studies suggest that relocated students evidence no enduring change in attainment levels unless they move to schools that are considerably higher-performing than the ones they leave. One-third of the proposed transfers will send students to a school with a worse School Performance Index. This begs the question:
Will this huge disruption in the lives of so many families and communities lead to better educational outcomes? Is the District cutting costs for its own sake or for a higher purpose?
On one hand the School District leads us to believe that these drastic measures are needed to address the precarious financial situation it is facing, but on the other hand it has been suggested that these school closings will free up money for programs such as art and music. Which is it? Before any final decision is made to close any school, it is critical that all the facts and information presented are consistent.
Philadelphians deserve an honest public debate on proposals to dramatically reshape their public education system. We need an independent evaluation of these proposals – and this can only happen if all the data that supports this plan is released to the public. Only with full information can we comment on the soundness of the plan and whether it offers true savings while providing a quality education for all students.