Dr. William Hite, the School District of Philadelphia’s new superintendent, has been on the job since September, but I suspect he got his official “Welcome to Philadelphia” this week.

A meeting held at Dobbins High School a few nights ago for community input into the District’s plan to close 37 schools at the end of the school year was well attended by parents and other stakeholders, who gave the School District representatives a piece of their minds.

A big piece.

It got loud, it got heated, and it got ugly. And guess what? It will get uglier over the coming weeks and months.

Parents are righteously indignant at what they perceive as the District’s ham-handed implementation of the plan to shut the doors of their neighborhood schools. They weren’t given sufficient notification, they complained, weren’t given input or even a token consultation before the plan was finalized, and only now get to comment in a short series of meetings designed not so much to gain insight from the community, but to push the plan through in its entirety.

City Council President Darrell Clarke, who attended the meeting at Dobbins, visited the Tribune’s offices on Wednesday morning, and he wasn’t wild about the plan either. As council representative for the fifth district, ten of the schools slated for closure are in his district, and his constituents would likely bear the brunt of the plan’s implementation.

“This decision was made in a vacuum. There was a bean counter behind it,” Clarke said, noting that great strides were made to improve conditions at Strawberry Mansion High School, one of the school’s in his district on the chopping block, including an infusion of money and resources from the federal government.

The district didn’t even know of the programs and improvements at Strawberry Mansion, Clarke told us, and were similarly unaware of a plan to build nearly 200 houses in the immediate catchment area, which could boost attendance by several hundred if those new homes are occupied by families with school-age children.

Clarke was careful to repeat several times that he doesn’t blame Hite for this fiasco, and suspects most parents don’t blame him either. Hite, in accepting the job, stepped onto a minefield. The woes of the district started long before he got here, and he’s left with the untenable job of trying to clean up a giant mess not of his own making.

But he did take the job, and all the headaches that go along with it. I realize Dr. Hite is a big boy, and can take the slings and arrows coming his way. In fact, I asked him point blank one day if he sometimes buries his head in his hands and asks himself, “What was I thinking?” He laughed and answered, only half-jokingly, “Every day.”

Clarke, as well as other members of City Council, has indicated that there may be public hearings, and certainly more than the already scheduled public meetings, on the matter of school closings before any doors are padlocked.

Most Philadelphians understand that some school closings are going to happen. That’s just the reality. Some of the schools on the list are operating at 25 or 30 percent of their student capacity, so the District is paying out an awful lot of money to heat and provide lights for empty classrooms. Clearly, that is an unsustainable pattern — especially for a district as deep in the financial hole as this one.

Think of the number of kids who will be forced to walk, sometimes long distances through hostile neighborhoods, to get to a school that’s not much better than the one down the street that the District just closed.

Think of the risks of robbery, assault and Lord-knows-what dangers as they walk unfamiliar streets. Now think about what happens if a child is robbed, or worse. Think their parents’ shyster lawyer may want to blame the District for closing the school around the corner, thereby contributing to the tragedy? Think that lawyer may sue for a buck or two?

This week’s meeting at Dobbins may serve as a wake up call to District officials that the entire closure plan has to be given a lot more thought, and a lot more strategic planning — before any sort of roll out to a now distrustful and less-than-receptive public.

I hope Dr. Hite realizes that by now, and plans his next steps very, very carefully. Good advice when you’re standing in a minefield.

 

Daryl Gale is the city editor of the Philadelphia Tribune.

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