After a raucous meeting punctuated by protests, officials in Philadelphia approved a plan Thursday night under which 23 of the city’s public schools will be closed, roughly 10 percent of the system’s buildings in a move to slash costs.
Officials of the Philadelphia School District, the 10th-largest in the United States with an enrollment that is roughly two-thirds African-American, say the move will enable it to improve academic success by moving funds to hire teachers and upgrade classroom equipment rather than spending money on decaying old buildings.
The proposal was championed by the school district’s superintendent, William R. Hite Jr., who was selected for the job in June. But the meeting of the School Reform Commission drew a number of protesters, with nearly 20 of the demonstrators arrested by police, including Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers.
Since coming to the job last summer, Hite has contended that the school system would fare far better if the district would sell older buildings and transfer students into the newer facilities. Under this plan approved by the commission, some middle schools would become elementary schools and thousands of students would be forced to attend schools in different buildings and in some cases other neighborhoods.
From virtually the moment the plan was announced, it faced vehement opposition from Philadelphians who contended that young students should not be shipped to schools in unfamiliar areas of the city. They also maintained that the disruption would cripple academic success.
"Philadelphia is being watched across the country," Weingerten said, addressing a crowd before the commission meeting outside the Philadelphia School District's headquarters. "This is a city that is under fire."
Pedro Ramos, the chairman of the commission, said that the closings were necessary for a school system that recently was forced to borrow $300 million to pay its bills for the remainder of the current school year.
The commission meeting, Ramos said, was "excruciating, difficult, and emotional for all of us. Nobody wants to do this - much less at this scale."
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(Photo: AP Photo/The Philadelphia Inquirer, Tom Gralish)