Philadelphia Metropolis


The Queen Is Dead

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masterman-bldg.jpgQueen Arlene is gone and already the talk is about her successor.

Leroy Nunnery, her No. 2 guy, has been named interim superindent and let me say he is exactly the right person for the job - as long as he remains interim.

Now that the drama over Arlene has subsided, folks will have the luxury of not thinking about the schools - until October.  That is when the district is due to offer the final draft of its facilities management plan that is sure to cause an uproar.

The Philadelphia School District, which once educated 200,000+ students a year, will have about 155,000 students enrolled when school starts after Labor Day.  It's own studies have show that its needs exceed its capacity by 64,000 seats.

The inevitable conclusion - using common sense, plus the draft of the facilities report - is that many schools will have to be closed, consolidated and the buildings sold. 

But it is not as simple as that.  While a number of schools are under-capacity, some of them are bursting at the seams.  To give one example, Masterman, the magnet middle-school/high school at 17th and Spring Garden Streets, is at 137 percent of its capacity.  Three blocks away, Benjamin Franklin High School, which is on Broad Street just north of Spring Garden, is at 36 percent of its capacity.

While Masterman is packing 1,181 students in a building designed to hold 800, Ben Franklin has 655 student in a building designed to hold 1,800.

The consultants who did most of the work on the draft report looked at that situation and figured it was a no brainer: their suggestion was to close Franklin, which is a neighborhood school, and send its students elsewhere. then, they suggested moving Masterman into the Franklin building.

It makes a lot of sense, until you consider the fact that Philadelphia is Philadelphia. 

Closing one school - even a grade school - is traumatic for parents and students, who tend not to care if the school is half empty as long as it is close by.

But, the imperative is clear.  It costs just as much to heat, clean and maintain a half-empty school as it does a full one.  A  cash-starved district cannot afford to luxury of surplus.

Something must be done.

And Nunnery is just the guy to do it. 
Of course, it is a career ender for anyone who implements such a plan, which will cause mucho political/social/racial/class/you-name-it unrest.  The other factor is that as painful as the steps recommended in the draft report may be, they are not enough.  The draft addresses only a little over half of the capacity issue.  The consultants, in effect, dealt with the low-lying fruit.  The district and its leaders will probably have to add more schools to the list.

A superintendent who leads this battle is likely to return on his or her shield.  They will have spent all their political capital, made a legion of new enemies, and be blamed forever more as the bastard who closed (pick one) my venerated high school, middle school or grade school.

This fact made me wish that Ackerman had stayed on as superintendent.  In a way, she was the perfect person for the job. She didn't give a damn what people thought. She would bull ahead on the closures. She would have gotten it done - though whether she would have gotten it done well is another matter.

The superintendent had a deep prejudice against special admission schools - saying (incorrectly) that they take resources from neighborhood high schools.  She may have used the downsizing to wipe some of the special admits off the map. We need more, not fewer special admits. The model of the future in public education is diversity of models, not the Soviet-style one-size-fits-all of the past.

But, Ackerman is gone and now Nunnery is in the barrel. It's the perfect job for an interim superintendent with a limited shelf life.  Do the deed, make your enemies, then leave town - to be replaced by a new superintendent who will enter with a clean slate and spend his or her political capital on other matters.

Here is a link to a story Metropolis did earlier on the facilities plan.  It includes links to the draft report and to the capacity of elementary, middle and high schools in the district. read it and weep for the interim superintendent.

--Tom Ferrick


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