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The imminent closing of 22 Philadelphia schools is indicative of a national trend that raises questions of poverty and race, community and economics, public policy and land use. And somewhere on that emotional spectrum is the issue that matters most — education.
As a lifelong city resident with a child in a Philadelphia public school, my interest is personal. I want my child, and indeed all children, to receive the kind of education I did — an education administered by caring and committed teachers.
Having worked with the Philadelphia School District both as a writing instructor and a volunteer, I know those kinds of educators still exist, and I believe they should be given the opportunity to improve education in every school. But the economics are hard to ignore. The Philadelphia School District entered the 2013 fiscal year with a $218 million budget shortfall, and officials estimate that closing 22 schools will generate $20.2 million in recurring annual savings starting in fiscal 2014. Moody’s Analytics, an international credit risk management agency, issued a report that said the school closings plan bolsters the School District’s creditworthiness.
But schools are about more than budgets and spreadsheets. They’re about people’s lives. They are the crucibles in which we are shaped. They are the settings for our earliest memories. They are the springboards that launch our careers. They are home. Perhaps that’s why it’s so important for all of us to speak to the future of each of Philadelphia’s schools — to weigh in on what will happen to those buildings. In doing so, we are speaking up for home. We are speaking up for our city. We are speaking up for ourselves.
To that end, AxisPhilly is launching Schoolhouse Watch — the first phase in an interactive project that seeks to help Philadelphians have real influence in what happens next. By sharing the same information the experts are looking at — from square footage, to facility condition, to market value and neighborhood demographics, and mapping that data to make it simple and useable — we are seeking to equip Philadelphians with the information they need to have a voice.
With the 22 buildings valued at $172.2 million under the City’s latest property assessment, the buildings are a potentially valuable public commodity, so we’ve constructed a forum where community leaders, stakeholders, developers, and ordinary Philadelphians can review news and submit ideas about the future of each building. We’ve done this so that everyone can have a say, because frankly, everyone should.
I know it’s difficult for some Philadelphians to see how the school closings affect them. Some of us don’t have school-aged children. Others don’t own homes, and thus don’t pay the property taxes that partially fund the schools. For them, the closing schools are a non-issue in a city that’s doing relatively well. After all, the city boasted an overall drop in crime in 2012, and the 37 percent of 25-to-34 year old Philadelphians with college degrees indicates that our city is getting younger and better educated. But look deeper — at the connections between blight and property values — and the picture looks slightly different.
In fact, experts say, large abandoned school buildings can be the final nail in a struggling neighborhood’s coffin. And the fate of those neighborhoods, whether we choose to believe it or not, is linked to the future of our city. Blight and vacancy decrease the number of taxed properties, and as we’ve seen with the Actual Value Initiative, such properties can increase the burden on the remaining property owners. So if we don’t speak up, if we don’t collectively figure out new uses for the buildings, then they will remain vacant. And vacancies and tax delinquency are leading indicators of a neighborhood’s, and indeed, a city’s decline.
According to Kevin Gillen, Senior Research Consultant at the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania, the city must intervene to keep the closing school buildings from creating a vacancy trend, do what it can to spur investment in the buildings, and do everything possible to maintain the buildings before they fall apart.
I would take that one step further. Not only must the city intervene. Ordinary citizens have to intervene, because the cost of failure goes beyond the economic implications. There is also a human cost.
That cost is especially high for minorities and the poor. On average, 96 percent of the students in each closing school are economically disadvantaged, 90 percent of them are African American or Latino, and 54 percent of the closing schools are in zip codes with median household incomes below $30,000. In communities where the city’s 28 percent poverty rate is painfully evident, these schools are more than buildings. They are community institutions, and if community is to be maintained, if poverty is to be addressed, if Philadelphia is going to continue to be what the Pew Charitable Trusts has called “a test case for a new theory on how cities develop in 21st century America,” then viable and stable institutions are vital.
I’m glad to see that the City has appointed Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger to head a process in which various city agencies will work with the School District to sell the buildings. And as AxisPhilly reported several weeks ago, I’m glad to see that the School District had set up a process for groups of community members, City Council offices, and School District officials to review proposals from potential buyers. That’s good, but it’s not enough.
In a city that is already overburdened by 40,000 vacant parcels, where even one more large empty building can change the course of a neighborhood, and by extension, slow the progress of the city, we need everyone’s ideas, including yours.
Participate in AxisPhilly’s Schoolhouse Watch project. Review the information. Submit your ideas. Engage in debate. Raise your voice, because we can’t afford to leave these buildings’ fate to the decisions of a handpicked few. Every Philadelphian should have a say, and we should all speak up, starting now.