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Coalition proposes alternative solutions for Philly schools

The solution for avoiding school closings and continued, painful budget cuts in the Philadelphia School District?

The solution for avoiding school closings and continued, painful budget cuts in the Philadelphia School District?

A coalition of community and student groups and the city teachers' union says it has found it: Focus on improving instruction. Ditch the School Reform Commission. Shift the way schools think about safety and discipline. Halt charter school growth.

And, most important, force Harrisburg to fund the Philadelphia School District equitably, making up billions in aid that would fix a broken school system, the advocates said.

The Philadelphia Community Education Plan, announced Tuesday by the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools, is a 44-page document developed as an alternative to recommendations issued this year by the Boston Consulting Group, which was hired to study the district and recommend ways to radically overhaul its finances and operations.

Some kind of course correction is necessary, district officials say. The system projects a $1.1 billion deficit over the next five years and just borrowed $300 million to pay its bills through the end of this school year.

Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has said he regards BCG's work as only a guideline. He has publicly come out against some parts of its analysis, including its recommendation to divide the district into "achievement networks," groups of 25 schools possibly run by outside organizations.

Hite is expected to release his own report detailing priorities for the district in early 2013.

Spokesman Fernando Gallard said Tuesday that while it's "really positive" to see people uniting to fight for public education, it was "unfortunate" that the coalition chose to focus so narrowly on BCG's work, which was never adopted as district policy.

Coalition representatives said they were scheduled to meet with Hite on Friday to discuss their plan.

The community plan disputes one of Hite's central assumptions - that the district is broke.

"The supposed fiscal 'crisis' is largely a fallacy. The real crisis we face is one of misplaced priorities: Philadelphia's traditional public schools are being unnecessarily starved of resources," the report says.

Andi Perez, executive director of Youth United for Change, one of the organizations that produced the report, said she realized that the amount of funding allocated by state lawmakers was not directly controlled by the SRC.

"But as Philadelphians, we can't lay down," Perez said. "We need to develop a unified, statewide strategy ... to reinstate the funding."

The report suggests that the district and the SRC - three of whose five members are gubernatorial appointments - are too complacent and with more effort could extract billions from Harrisburg.

Gallard said the district "welcomes this unified call for better funding for public schools. The superintendent has been clear that he will knock on doors - whether it be in Harrisburg or anywhere else - to get more funding for schools."

The BCG plan would have devastating consequences for the district, the group concluded. Coalition members denounced it as a business plan that ignored the fundamental needs of schools.

"Our students are not widgets," Philadelphia Federation of Teachers vice president Arlene Kempin said at a Tuesday news conference. "They are young people with a right to the best tools and conditions for learning."

In the last two years, the district has lost nearly 1,500 teachers; 86 percent of nonteaching assistant positions; 101 school nurses; and more.

The community plan calls for several fixes: from "high-quality learning conditions" and "comprehensive student supports" to "support for struggling schools" and "truly safe schools."

It also calls for a moratorium on school closings. Last week, Hite recommended that the district shut 37 schools and order program closures, changes, and grade reconfigurations at dozens more. He said the actions were necessary because of tens of thousands of empty seats.

The group wants to use empty space for community centers.

Another key tenet of the plan is ending the SRC. The plan does not specify whether a new school board should be locally elected or appointed by the mayor, as was the prior practice.

It also takes aim at city charter schools, which currently enroll nearly 50,000 students. The proliferation of charters has unfairly sapped the traditional public school system, the report says.

The report estimates that an "oversize" charter sector and continued expansions would cost the district about $2 billion in the next five years.

The plan was developed after a series of community meetings and a survey of 1,594 parents, students, and community members, organizers said.

"Our research found that there was overwhelming opposition to the BCG plan throughout Philadelphia," the report says. Community voice is lacking in both the BCG report and the current administration of the district, the report says.

Asked what would compel lawmakers who have been unwilling to give more money to schools to date to do so, Perez said the answer was clear.

"People," she said. "Communities. We live in a democracy. Politicians have to listen to us."

Joyce Johnson, a cafeteria worker at Pepper Middle School and district parent and grandparent, said she was ready to fight.

"Look at this plan," she implored the district. "There are alternatives to closing schools."