PHILADELPHIA -- The school system's chief recovery officer was trying to explain how broke the district is, but no one could hear him.
"Save our schools! Save our schools!"
More than 200 protesters had packed the Philadelphia school board meeting and were drowning out the official presentation; they also waved signs expressing "No confidence" in next year's austere budget. It was the second major demonstration at district headquarters in just over a week.
The City of Brotherly Love is boiling over with frustration. It's not just the $700 million in education cuts this past year. It's not just a loss of state aid, which led to a massive rally and 14 arrests. And it's not just the plan to close 40 of Philadelphia's 249 schools within a year.
"For 10 years we've lived with promises that privatization and choice options would be the magic bullet to a lot of the problems," said parent Helen Gym. "What we found is chasing after these silver bullets has really drained schools of resources and starved them to the point of dysfunction."
Like many other cash-strapped urban districts, Philadelphia is trying desperately to emerge from a quagmire of red ink and underachievement. A state takeover in 2002 did little to eradicate the financial, academic and violence problems that have plagued the schools for years.
Philadelphia badly lags the national average in reading and math scores, ranking below even peer districts like New York, Houston and Miami. About 61 percent of local students graduate from high school; only 35 percent get a college degree.
Now, a new cadre of district leaders is determined to develop a fiscally sustainable system of safe, high-quality schools for the city's 146,000 students. Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen has proposed cutting hundreds of central office jobs, creating management networks to oversee schools, and shuttering dozens of old and depopulated buildings as more students enroll in charter schools.
The response was swift – and angry.
Parents and teachers contend they had no input into such a drastic overhaul. Students and community members fear school closures will destroy neighborhoods and create blight. Public education advocates say the district is privatizing a basic civil right.
Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City and St. Louis also turned to the private sector in ultimately failed efforts to improve schools, said Diane Ravitch, an education professor at New York University. There's no evidence it will succeed in Philadelphia, she said.
In fact, the city did try a similar approach 10 years ago, doling out 70 schools to education management organizations. But labor contracts largely prevented the companies from hiring their own staff; few improvements were seen; and nearly all have left the district.
"Why are we trying this again?" Cathy Roccia-Meier, a visibly frustrated parent, said at a budget hearing last month.
West Philadelphia High School sophomore Alycia Duncan worries that school closures could place students from rival neighborhoods in the same building – with violent results. As it is, she said, troubled students have no one to talk to because of a dearth of counselors.
"They don't really know from a student's perspective what's really going on," Duncan, 15, said of district officials.
Some education reformers have praised aspects of Knudsen's plan, saying that decentralization will allow teachers and principals more autonomy. Jeanne Allen, president of the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, described the proposal as long overdue and perhaps not bold enough.
"This should be a reinvention of how kids enroll, how we hire people to serve them, how we serve the community in general," Allen said.
Still, school commissioners heard boos and catcalls at a May 31 meeting as they approved the first step in the overhaul: A pared-down, $2.5 billion budget that even Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon described as "bare bones" and "not adequate for the children that we serve."
"We still do not have enough nurses, counselors, librarians, arts and music programs, sports, and support staff," Nixon said.
Nurses, in fact, have picketed weekly outside district offices since nearly 50 were laid off in December. They say the cuts endanger students, whose medications are now often dispensed by staff with no medical training.
District leaders stress the overhaul proposal is still being refined. At the meeting, they tried to tell the raucous crowd that students are suffering for the financial sins of previous administrators, as well as cuts in aid, rising costs and a weak economy.
But it was hard to hear their defense above the chanting.
"They say cut back, we say fight back! They say cut back, we say fight back!"
The passion in the room left Gym, perhaps the district's most outspoken activist, at an uncharacteristic loss for words as she stood to address the commissioners. Her voice faltered briefly before launching into the eloquent and hard-charging criticism for which she is known.
Afterward, Gym said she was overcome by the emotion overflowing from the broad coalition of students, parents, teachers, district staff, clergy, union leaders and residents.
"It's a real last stand around public education," Gym said. "And to have all these people come out ... was, I thought, just incredibly powerful."