By Mike DeNardo

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The School District of Philadelphia today launched a series of public meetings as it explores permanently closing dozens of school buildings.

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Audience members at the first meeting at school headquarters were given handheld polling devices that allowed the district to tabulate responses in real time (photo below) as they weighed factors including building conditions, academics, and how full the school is.

(Owen Franklin, a consultant, polls the audience about issues regarding school closings. Results were tabulated automatically and displayed on a screen behind him. Credit: Mike DeNardo)


School Reform Commission member Wendell Pritchett says the district is banking on $33 million a year in savings, from closing 29 to as many as 57 underutilized buildings.

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“That is wasted money,” Pritchett told a crowd of parents and community activists.  “That is money that could be used for hiring music teachers and art teachers, and improving after-school programs, and doing all the things that or children deserve.”

Pritchett said the cash-strapped district can’t afford to pay for 70,000 empty seats in its schools.

“We have many schools that, if they are not empty, they are close to empty.  And we are spending money on those schools — on utilities, on maintenance, on keeping them up — that should, that must be spent on improving our programs for every child.”

So, the district is holding seven public meetings to gauge community priorities  — what to do with a good academic school in an obsolete building, for example.

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This November, the district will announce which schools it will target for closure.  That will trigger another round of public hearings, before the School Reform Commission makes the final call.