The Philadelphia School Reform Commission voted to suspend portions of the state public school code Thursday night, saying it needed room to cap charter enrollment and shorten the timeline for closing schools.
The moves, Chairman Pedro Ramos said, were necessary because of the School District's grim financial picture. The SRC recently borrowed $300 million to pay its bills just for the rest of the year, and a five-year plan projects a deficit of more than $1 billion if corrective steps are not taken.
"It's important, given the dire circumstances, that we try to maintain flexibility," Ramos said.
Charter school expansion is costly to the district, and officials have said they cannot afford uncontrolled costs.
The SRC passed the suspension resolutions unanimously, without discussion or public comment. It was not the first time this SRC has suspended portions of the code; it has done so a few times in the last year, including waiving the school-closing timeline that applied to buildings shuttered in June.
Ramos said the SRC would continue to use the special powers given to it by the state. In addition to suspending portions of the code, the SRC can impose terms on unions and cancel contracts if the district is in fiscal distress.
"It doesn't mean that we'll use all of them or abuse any of them," Ramos said.
The charter cap is particularly important. In the past, charter schools in the city have not expanded unless the SRC gave them permission to do so. But a court challenge by the Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School threw that convention out the window, and, technically, charters can expand without SRC approval.
"We know that under the five-year plan, predictability is critical," Ramos said in an interview after the SRC meeting. "It's life and death."
Since the Palmer ruling, multiple charters have agreed to enrollment caps and, in some cases, expansions that won the SRC's stamp of approval.
"We want to be able to negotiate mutually agreed-upon plans with charter schools," Ramos said.
He said the SRC had no specific school in mind for imposing a cap.
It is not clear whether the SRC's move would stand up to possible legal challenges from charter schools.
As it prepares to hear recommendations on closing roughly 40 district schools by June, the SRC also needs breathing room on strict state guidelines about how much time it must allow between hearings on the closings and its vote, Ramos said.
"We expect this year's process to also be exhaustive," Ramos said. "It will be a sufficiently public and credible process."
Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has said the district would present recommendations for the current round of closings in the next few weeks, possibly not until the first week in December.
The SRC also voted to sell three vacant buildings. The former John Paul Jones Middle School Annex on Amber Street in Kensington was sold to Elm City Capital and Richmond Mills for $250,000; the old Simon Muhr School on Germantown Avenue in North Philadelphia was sold to Philadelphia Suburban Development Corp. for $150,000; and the former Rudolph S. Walton School on North 28th Street in North Philadelphia went to KIPP Philadelphia Charter for $320,000.
In the public comment portion of the meeting, the parent of a district kindergartner urged the SRC to examine yelling at students. It's an overused practice in schools around the city, she said, and counterproductive.
Hite said schools must be places of respect. Students must be supported and encouraged, he said, not controlled through fear.
"Adults don't want to be screamed at, nor do I want any of our students screamed at," Hite said.