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School plan widely misunderstood, SRC officials say

Appearing before City Council for another day of grilling on the Philadelphia School District's budget and proposals to transform operations and close dozens of schools, officials on Tuesday said there are widespread misunderstandings about a plan to revamp the district.

Appearing before City Council for another day of grilling on the Philadelphia School District's budget and proposals to transform operations and close dozens of schools, officials on Tuesday said there are widespread misunderstandings about a plan to revamp the district.

"Achievement networks" - groups of 20 to 25 schools run either by district staff or by outside, nonprofit providers, such as universities or charter organizations - would be the foundation of the plan to decentralize. Those networks primary purpose would be to provide services requested by individual schools, School Reform Commission Chairman Pedro Ramos said.

Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez said she was "very concerned with public confidence in the plan. . . . We're not asking you to stop the plan. We're asking you to put the brakes on the plan."

But School Reform Commissioner Feather Houstoun said that much of the public perception on the achievement networks "doesn't follow as I understand the recommendations."

Both Houstoun and SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos said that the transformation plan is not final and that the SRC is taking very seriously feedback from the public in meetings around the city. They and other officials have said that the plan is not privatization, as critics have suggested.

Councilman Bill Greenlee wanted to know why more input from teachers, parents, and principals wasn't sought before the transformation blueprint was released.

Ramos acknowledged Greenlee's point as "fair criticism," but stressed that the document is far from finished, that feedback is now being sought at meetings around the city, and that the SRC will take suggestions very seriously.

Finances were also a hot topic, as the district is asking for $94 million from the city, which would come from Council adopting Mayor Nutter's proposal to collect more property taxes.

Council is not sold on the plan. Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell, chair of the education committee, pointed out that the district has laid off a number of low-paid workers and has issued layoff notices to thousands more.

"That's a real problem - being asked to raise taxes for people whose jobs were just cut," Blackwell said. "That's a big, big problem for us."

Sánchez asked if the SRC would be willing to submit to a city review of district finances.

"We can disagree on policy, but we have to agree on the numbers," she said in an interview. "A lot of what we heard from the [Philadelphia Federation of Teachers] and others last week was, 'There's no confidence in the numbers.' "

Ramos said he would be willing to have the district's finances reviewed. Folasade Olanipekun-Lewis, a former district chief financial officer, now holds that job for Council and will likely perform the review.

Council members also said they want to hear about the district's finances more frequently than once a year, as has been the custom.

Councilman Bill Green - who opened his remarks by suggesting Sánchez, the former head of the Latino education organization ASPIRA, be considered as permanent superintendent, a notion she waved off - wanted more details on the 2012-13 budget.

On May 31, the SRC will vote on a $2.5 billion spending plan that will include a $218 million shortfall. To make ends meet, officials want to borrow the money rather than cut already bare-bones school budgets or other services.

"To knowingly spend more than your projected revenues is against the law, and there has to be some approval process for that," said Green, a frequent district critic. "I just want to know, who has to approve that?"

Ramos said that state officials will have to sign off on the deficit spending. When Green asked what the contingency plan is, should the approval not be granted, Ramos said the district would need either to find alternate revenue sources or to cut spending.

With a cash-flow problem and too many empty seats in school buildings, the district plans on closing 40 schools in 2013 and six more per year for the next four years. Responding to a question from Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown about the closings, Houstoun stressed the need to act swiftly.

"I think having schools hanging three, four, five years may be worse than just trying to figure it out at one time," Houstoun said. "If we were to go slower, we would have to raise money for every school that we don't close."

Councilman Mark Squilla inquired about the future of the district's headquarters at 440 N. Broad St. Already underutilized, it will become even emptier with plans to further reduce the size of the central office staff. Squilla wanted to know if officials are banking on any rental income for the property, perhaps.

There are no plans for the building - yet, Ramos said. He said he would like see "one or more schools there, or having other uses that are not just purely administrative uses."

Talk also turned to issues of climate and safety. Ramos said that recently, the district has turned away from viewing safety "as something incidental to instruction and education." Now, he said, "it's a threshold issue."

The district wants to focus more on prevention and on professional development, he said.

"I think part of the culture that we have to break from is reducing tasks in some industrial way to, 'This is my job, this is your job,' " Ramos said. "There is nothing more fundamental to everybody's job than school climate and safety."