School & District Management

Philadelphia To Scrap ‘Cluster’ Plan In Bid To Save Money

By Mark Stricherz — May 09, 2001 3 min read
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Six years after a high-profile reorganization of Philadelphia’s schools into 22 clusters, the district’s new leader announced last week that the plan would be scrapped in an attempt to cut a huge deficit.

“Dollars drive decisions around here, no question about it,” said Alexis Moore, the spokeswoman for the 210,000-student district.

District leaders estimate that eliminating the layers of bureaucracy that oversee the clusters would save $60 million over five years, though they could not say how they arrived at that figure. Ms. Moore said the district plans to send cluster staff members “back to the classroom” as teachers and principals.

Ms. Moore said she expects some savings to come from lessened expenses for maintenance and facilities for the cluster offices.

Philip R. Goldsmith

Philip R. Goldsmith, the district’s acting chief executive officer, left open the possibility of laying off district workers, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.

The district, which has a budget of $1.7 billion, faces an estimated deficit of $192 million to $230 million. Pennsylvania state law requires that districts be able to report a balanced budget by May 30.

Philadelphia’s decision to eliminate the cluster system brings into sharp focus the often-conflicting goals of large urban districts, which have to choose between balancing budgets and trying to raise student achievement.

‘22 Systems’

Part of former Superintendent David W. Hornbeck’s ambitious Children Achieving plan, the clusters were designed to improve curriculum and engender a sense of community. Each cluster, which has a full-time leader and staff of 12 to 18, is made up of a high school and its feeder elementary and middle schools.

Mr. Goldsmith, who has no previous education experience, was hired last October based largely on the strength of his corporate background. For the past 18 years, he has been an executive with PNC Bank Corp., an executive-recruiting company, and a management-consulting firm. He has also been a journalist and a deputy mayor for the city.

Mr. Goldsmith told the Inquirer that the cluster system was “decentralization run amok.”

He vowed to put a uniform curriculum in place throughout the district’s 264 schools. In addition, the 22 clusters will be replaced with eight “academic offices” that will function somewhat as the clusters do, Ms. Moore said.

Joseph T. Murphy, a professor of education at Ohio State University, said that if clusters can foster a sense of community and help align the curriculum, they can be a powerful force for raising student achievement.

Mr. Hornbeck, who was the city superintendent from 1995 until his resignation last summer, defended the cluster plan last week as having raised test scores.

“Imagine having a conversation with 10 people verses one with 35,” Mr. Hornbeck said of the cluster leaders, compared with Mr. Goldsmith’s proposal. “It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out that the conversation is going to be very, very different.”

Still, Mr. Hornbeck’s cluster plan was controversial among city and state officials. While none of his detractors denies that student achievement rose during his tenure, they voiced skepticism about the merits of the cluster organization.

“We opposed it from the beginning,” said Ted Kirsch, the president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, the city’s affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

The district had “22 different school systems within the school boundaries,” Mr. Kirsch said. “Tell me how that’s a system.”

Mayor John Street, who was elected in 1999, also opposed the cluster plan when it was introduced and he was a member of the City Council.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 2001 edition of Education Week as Philadelphia To Scrap ‘Cluster’ Plan In Bid To Save Money

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