Superintendent Hite is stepping down: It’s been a tumultuous decade for Philly schools

The search for his replacement will kick off with community listening sessions.

Philadelphia School District Superintendent Dr. William Hite,  greeting students on their first day of school on August 31, 2021

Philadelphia School District Superintendent Dr. William Hite, greeting students on their first day of school on August 31, 2021

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
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Superintendent William Hite is leaving the School District of Philadelphia at the end of the academic year.

His current contract, which budgets for a $334,644 salary, is set to expire in August 2022. The Inquirer reports that Hite and the city’s Board of Education have agreed not to renew it — meaning his job will expire next summer.

“After much reflection, I’ve decided not to renew my contract when it expires in summer 2022,” Hite said in a video to parents, teachers and staff released Monday. “Until then…we have a lot of work to do, especially given the tremendous challenge facing us during this school year.”

By the time his tenure ends, the 60-year-old career educator, who previously oversaw school systems in Maryland and Georgia, will have spent a decade at the helm of Philly public schools.

The city’s search for a new superintendent is expected to kick off soon. The Philadelphia Board of Education said it’s creating a formal search advisory committee and contracting a professional firm to handle the hiring process. Starting Oct. 11, the BOE will host 18 community listening sessions to hear Philly’s priorities for its next school leader.

“The board is committed to ensuring that this important search is community informed and serves the best interest of every student in Philadelphia,” said Leticia Egea-Hinton, BOE vice president, in a statement. “We aim to bring transparency and diverse voices into the critical process of selecting a new superintendent.”

Hite assumed the role in 2012, replacing former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman after her $905k buyout.

At the time, Philly schools were facing tremendous debt, forcing the district to borrow hundreds of millions while cutting $700 million in cost. He successfully navigated out of the financial straits — and brought the system back under local control — but landed in the middle of several other crises, from ongoing asbestos construction concerns to this year’s trash pickup debacle. In 2020, the principals’ union voted “no confidence” in his leadership.

“Ten years is a long time to be doing this type of work,” Hite said at a Tuesday press conference, according to The Inquirer, adding that he plans to remain in Philly even after his term is up.

Here’s a recap of some of the biggest things that happened under Hite’s tenure, and the multiple issues piling up for whoever comes in to replace him.

The district gets out of debt

When Hite joined the School District of Philadelphia, it was on the brink of insolvency. In 2013, just a year into his tenure, the district projected a $1.35 billion deficit over the next five years.

How’d he deal with it? Hite lobbied Harrisburg for more funding and incurred less debt by issuing fewer bonds. In one of the more controversial cost-saving mechanisms, Hite also led the closure of 23 public schools in 2013 (see below).

“He came into his position in a financial crisis, and I think these past three years he’s put the structures in place to move us forward as a district,” Marjorie Neff, chair of the state-run School Reform Commission, told The Inquirer in 2015.

Hite reduced the school district’s debt to $33 million by 2017 — and even avoided budget cuts during the pandemic.

Dozens of schools close for good

About those school closures. Hite recommended shuttering 28 schools in 2013 — which eventually dropped to 23 permanent closures, representing more than 10% of the district’s public school buildings.

This caused a huge uproar among parents and students, sparking protests and attracting national news coverage. A 2019 analysis of the impact of the closures found varying effects: Some displaced students’ test scores went up, while others were absent more and received more suspensions.

District returns to local control

In 2001, Pennsylvania declared the Philly school district financially and academically “distressed,” and seized control, creating the School Reform Commission to run things. In what’s now been called a “failed experiment,” the state maintained control for 16 years.

Many local advocates now believe state control created an adversarial relationship with parents and the teachers’ union, and weakened the district as a whole.

The state-controlled commission voted to dissolve itself in 2017, and was replaced by the nine-member Philadelphia Board of Education. The board is run at the city level, with members appointed by the mayor. The BOE’s first meeting in 2018 opened to cheers — compared to the usual boos at SRC meetings.

Asbestos and lead paint plague schools

The School District of Philadelphia has a long, unfortunate history with asbestos that dates back at least half a century.

A 2018 Inquirer investigation revealed it never really ended. Dangerous asbestos, mold, and peeling lead paint were still present in dozens of public schools — in gyms, cafeterias, hallways, classrooms, and auditoriums. In some cases, damaged asbestos went unrepaired for years.

Among those affected was career Philly school teacher Lea DiRusso, who was diagnosed with mesothelioma cancer due to her exposure. She eventually received an $850,000 settlement.

In June of 2018, Gov. Tom Wolf allocated the district $15.7 million to repair all school buildings and rid them of toxic materials. But even as recently as August 2021, school communities remain concerned about asbestos in their buildings.

Construction displaces students at SLA/Ben Franklin

The now-dissolved School Reform Commission left behind a giant problem when it abruptly ended the lease for the Science Leadership Academy’s Center City building in 2017. In the plan, SLA would move to the old Ben Franklin High School building, which required construction to get back into shape.

But the construction timeline was overly optimistic. The start of the school year was delayed at first, then crews had to complete work while students and staff were inside the building.

During the process, inside the building, crews found — you guessed it — asbestos. Only after public outcry were students temporarily relocated to other schools in the district.

An audit found that with this project, the district “ignored warning signs, rushed crucial work, wasted money, and endangered students and staff.”

Entire district pivots to remote learning

When the coronavirus hit the Philly region, it upended the School District of Philadelphia’s operations. At first, the state planned to shut down in-person learning for just two weeks. As we now know, the shutdown lasted through the rest of the 2019-20 academic year and throughout the following year, too.

Hite navigated the district through the complicated switch to virtual. At least at first, many students never showed up for online school, often due to a lack of broadband access. For equity’s sake, the school district temporarily stopped grading. Schools distributed laptops and suggested that students complete online learning in their schools’ parking lots to access Wi-Fi.

The challenges culminated in a partnership with Comcast, where the Philly broadband corporation expanded internet access by making 50,000 more students eligible for its Internet Essentials program.

District feeds kids during COVID

When the coronavirus shut down in-person schools, it severed access to regular meals for many Philly kids.

Under Hite, the district acted quickly, turning 50 public schools into meal distribution sites. Students could stop by twice a week and grab six meals each — three breakfasts and three lunches.

The program shifted to one day per week in April 2020, and continued into the district’s second virtual school year.

Parents flummoxed by shifting schedules 

Just a month before Philly schools finally reopened in person this year, the district suddenly posted an updated schedule to its website. The update included a 7:30 a.m. start time — at least a half hour earlier than the pre-pandemic call time for most schools.

The school district logged tons of complaints from parents who said the change upended their schedules, and health experts who called less sleep for kids a public health issue. The district walked back the idea and returned to standard start times.

A similar situation happened again recently. Earlier this month, the district blindsided parents by proposing half days for students on Fridays — which the district, once again, walked back.

Bus driver shortage leaves students in the lurch

Another crisis brought by the return to in-person learning: a massive shortage of bus drivers, which is a national issue. The Philadelphia district needs roughly 1,300 drivers to get all the city’s kids to school. Currently, they’ve got fewer than 900.

Kids are showing up late for class or not getting there at all, parents have reported. The problem is so bad Hite considered seeking help from the National Guard — and even Amazon. Parents can currently get a cash stipend if they drive their children to school for the year.

Out-of-control trash heaps overwhelm schoolyards

At the start of this academic year, many of Philadelphia’s public school students arrived ceremoniously back to their first day of in-person learning — only to find trash heaps dominating the campuses.

A WHYY reporter found at least five schools with mountains of garbage encroaching on the right of way, and parents said the piles only grew larger during the first week of school.

“We’re working our staff on overtime to get this cleaned up,” Jeff Scott, district interim director of operations, told WHYY. The district has blamed the lack of pickup on staffing issues at the contracted trash haulers.

Yet, despite community efforts to clean up the garbage in the meantime, the problem persists.

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