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Plan would shut 40 schools in '13

And 6 more annually till '17 as part of massive restructuring

T HE Philadelphia School District will massively restructure itself in the coming months, fundamentally altering the way it is organized and run - and possibly closing 40 low-performing, underused schools next year as it shifts many more students to charter schools.

The district faces a $218 million shortfall for the coming school year, more than previously stated and subject to rise if Mayor Nutter's proposed city tax plan does not materialize.

Pressing academic and safety problems, "and the fact that, financially, we cannot continue in the present form of organization and operations that we have right now," require the district to change its basic structure, Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen said Monday.

Knudsen and Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon will present budget details, a five-year plan and their blueprint for decentralizing and restructuring on Tuesday. They declined to release or confirm any details in advance, but several sources provided information to the Inquirer.

Finances are one main driver. The district has long spent beyond its means, current leaders say, but the time of reckoning has arrived.

Officials are planning to save $156 million over five years from personnel costs by restructuring benefits and wages. In that period, they are also planning on $149 million in savings from charter schools, namely through a per-pupil payment cut of 7 percent in 2013 followed by a three-year freeze at that level.

But they are also figuring on saving $122 million in operations by closing about 40 underutilized, underperforming schools in September 2013, then six more schools every year through 2017. The school closings would save about $33 million, officials have said.

The SRC recently voted to close eight schools, but at the time it acknowledged that it would have to close many more in the future. With more than 50,000 students shifting from district schools to charter schools in the past decade, district classrooms have thousands of extra seats.

Knudsen and Nixon's plan still requires approval by the School Reform Commission, but they have been working closely with the SRC.

Officials have also briefed City Council and staff members on their plan to "modernize" custodial services, maintenance and transportation. The district has already issued layoff notices to the members of Local 32BJ, District 1201 - bus aides, cleaners, maintenance workers, building engineers and others.

The district has solicited bids for outsourcing those services, and Knudsen said it would keep the current employees only if they work for the lower prices quoted by outside bidders, according to those briefed Monday by Knudsen.

Another key facet of the plan is getting students out of failing schools and moving them into what the district is calling "high-performing seats," regardless of whether those seats are in district or charter schools.

"I think we have to proceed down a path of basic reforming of the school district and moving into the whole idea of treating all schools as public schools as a first step," Knudsen said.

District, city, charter and, most recently, Archdiocese of Philadelphia officials have all signed on to the Great Schools Compact, a document whose main goal is closing underperforming schools and expanding strong ones. The aim is to shed 50,000 low-performing seats in five years.

The district's central office, already about half the size it was last year, will further shrink. Most school-related services are expected to leave central office control and go to so-called achievement networks, which would be groups of 25 or so schools run by either district staff; an external organization like a charter-management group, university or education-management organization; or a combination of district insiders and others.

The achievement networks would have goals for each individual school and would be subject to being tossed out by the district if they fail to meet performance goals. Principals and teachers would remain district employees, but principals would be rated by their achievement networks.

Beyond the $218 million shortfall for fiscal 2013, uncertainties remain. The district is banking on $94 million from the mayor's Actual Value Initiative, which would reassess city properties to create more tax revenue, but that measure has not yet garnered the City Council support it needs to pass.

And the district's projections don't account for a recent court ruling that found the district illegally capped enrollment at a city charter school. That ruling, if it stands, could have wide implications on charter expansion, which the district has tightly controlled. Unplanned expansion would cost the district millions it does not have.