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Schools have no choice but to make the tough ones

The type of leader who will be hired to become Philadelphia's next superintendent of schools became clearer Tuesday with the district's announcement of a five-year plan to erase a massive budget deficit.

The city's two previous superintendents — Arlene Ackerman and, before her, Paul Vallas — were visionaries who brought with them their own master plans to restructure the system and make it more successful academically, if not economically.

But by implementing a new road map to the future before replacing Ackerman, who stepped down eight months ago, the School Reform Commission appears to be saying the next superintendent will be expected to follow a path already set for him, or her.

That is unless the SRC expects to give the superintendent's job to either the district's interim chief recovery officer, Thomas Knudsen, or chief academic officer Penny Nixon, who together devised the five-year plan. Either choice might work, but the SRC should be up-front about its intentions.

Faced with the possibility of a $218 million shortfall by the next school year — or even more if Mayor Nutter's plan to steer $94 million in new property-tax revenue to the schools falls through — the SRC acted decisively.

But it could have acted just as decisively in moving aggressively to name a replacement for Ackerman who could participate in developing the five-year plan, rather than simply carrying it out. That said, the Knudsen/Nixon plan makes sense, but may require changes.

It is designed to save $156 million over five years by restructuring employee benefits and wages, $149 million by cutting the district's allocation to charter schools, and $122 million by closing 40 underutilized and underperforming schools in 2013 and another six by 2017.

Of course, each of these paths has obstacles. Employee unions are unlikely to lie down without a fight over wage and benefit cuts, and anytime you talk about closing schools, even poorly performing ones, you can expect some outrage from alumni who want their alma mater to live forever.

One also has to question whether it makes sense to cut the charters' funding at the same time you're implementing a plan that places more emphasis on charters as alternatives to poorly performing traditional public schools. That doesn't sound like the best way to engender more cooperation between the district and its charters.

In that regard, it was good to see the district and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia announce Monday that they have entered into a Great Schools Compact to increase their level of cooperation in educating the city's 200,000 school-age children. When the archdiocese recently closed a number of schools, some questioned whether there should have been more coordination with the SRC.

Forming the compact may give the city a leg up in competing for  an education grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is offering $40 million in aid to schools nationwide. One immediate benefit from the pact will be public access to the Catholic schools' test-score data, which can be useful to parents trying to decide the best education choice for their children.

Given the state's recalcitrance in properly funding public schools, cooperative efforts that reap private support are well worth the effort. And the next superintendent will no doubt agree with that approach since the SRC has decided in advance for him or her that it's  the best course for Philadelphia schools.