Passionate pleas from students and others Saturday put William R. Hite Jr. on the defensive just three months into his job as superintendent of the Philadelphia School District.
Hite got an earful during a two-hour public meeting over his recommendations to close or relocate 44 schools throughout the city.
"Our children are not for sale!" exclaimed Gail Clouden, 57, a community activist from West Philadelphia. "People are not for sale!"
To which Hite responded: "This has to do with funding, and when you don't have funds, you have to make the best use of the money you have. . . . This is something that we all will be reviewing together."
The gathering in the auditorium at South Philadelphia High School attracted more than 400 people. Three more meetings are scheduled this week for Hite and other school district leaders to answer questions from parents and students about the impact of the proposed closures and relocations.
The district will also host 16 meetings for the broader community across the city in January and February.
The proposed closures - considered the largest contraction in the history of the district, potentially affecting 17,000 students and 2,000 staffers - were announced by Hite on Thursday.
He said they would save the cash-strapped district an estimated $28 million by shutting down underutilized, inefficient, or structurally unsafe schools.
Some of the savings would be plowed back into academic programs and safety initiatives, the superintendent said.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia, meanwhile, has closed 27 schools over the last year, with more expected to be announced.
While Hite was at the high school defending the downsizing plan, protesters gathered for a march from 17th and Market Streets, around City Hall, to school district headquarters on North Broad Street.
"Today I am here to remind you that our public schools matter," said school nurse Eileen Duffey, standing outside the administration building at the end. "Our public schools are worth fighting for."
Others held signs that read "Students Over Profits" and "Close Prisons Not Schools."
The rally was organized by a group called Philadelphians Allied for a Responsible Economy. PhARE describes itself as a branch of Occupy Philadelphia.
Among those marching was Alexander Anderson, 28, a father of two boys who attend Alexander Wilson Elementary School in Southwest Philadelphia, which is slated to be closed.
"My boys love their school," he said. "I will have to make alternative plans if they close it. Do I put them in a charter school, or will I have to teach them from home? I just don't know right now."
A number of parents at the public meeting in South Philadelphia shared Anderson's sentiment. Shouting erupted several times.
"You need to go into the community and give us answers!" yelled Venard Johnson, 65, an education consultant who does work at several schools citywide. "This process is a fraud."
Several demanded answers from Hite and the other administrators on a range of questions, from how their special-ed children would be able to adjust to the relocations, to why certain schools were spared and others were not.
Matthew Gilliam, 16, an honors student at University City Promise Academy, which is set to close, noted how he benefited from the attention he got from teachers because of the smaller class sizes.
Hite told Gilliam that the academy was built to accommodate 2,500 students and currently has 500.
"We are spending a lot of money in repairing and maintaining that school," the superintendent said. "Heating and ventilation are a problem for such an underused amount of space."
To which Gilliam shot back: "But you have 500 kids that want to get far in life."
Under the district's plan, some schools would swap buildings. In South Philadelphia, for instance, higher-performing Abigail Vare Elementary would move to the George Washington Elementary building, which is in better structural shape.
That point didn't sit well with Howard Trondle. "It's not just about efficiency with our schools. It's about community," said Trondle, 61, who has three grandchildren at Vare.
In the audience, Marco Nieto, 11, quietly held up a sign with his mother, Esperanza, that read: "Help George Washington Elementary School."
"I feel sad," said the fifth grader, "because it's a really good school."
The School Reform Commission is scheduled to vote on the shutdowns in March.
The Philadelphia School District has scheduled three more "Facilities Master Plan Meetings," all this week, to go over the proposed closures and relocations with those who would be most affected:
Monday: Sayre High School, 5800 Walnut St. from 6 to 8 p.m.
Tuesday: Edison High School, 151 W. Luzerne St., from 6 to 8 p.m.
Wednesday: Martin Luther King High School,
6100 Stenton Ave.,
from 6 to 8 p.m.
For more information
or go to www.philasd.org/fmp.
at 215-854-2855 or firstname.lastname@example.org.