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How much is a buck worth? Why a District land deal needs more scrutiny

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

When is a dollar not worth a dollar? Take a look at last week’s media stories (Daily News and Inquirer), which blew open a District land transfer deal for a politically connected development group. The story raises serious questions not only about the SRC’s secretive decisionmaking process, but also the wheeling and dealing behind the District’s new land management policy and its enormous – and almost entirely unscrutinized – capital budget. And as the SRC votes today on the sale of six more properties, public concern and oversight is more necessary than ever.

The background: The children from Duckrey Elementary School in North Philly practice band and play basketball on a sweet piece of land behind their school. Teachers had plans to grow a garden and beautify the space; the school’s principal hoped for a playground for the school’s 380-some children. However, others had their own plans – namely the board of a nonprofit development company called NewCourtland. Form 990s filed by NewCourtland show State Rep. Dwight Evans and School Reform Commission Chair Robert Archie are among its former board members. NewCourtland is also represented by Archie’s firm, Duane Morris.

Last September, the Mayor’s chief of staff, Clarence Armbrister, penned a letter to District Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and the School Reform Commission requesting the land behind Duckrey for a NewCourtland housing project. Although most land deals take quite a bit of time, the District was able to fast-track this request in a matter of weeks in order to put it up for a vote on October 21 under the heading "Resolution #A-21: Authorization to Declare Lands at Tanner Duckery Unused and Unnecessary/Convey to the City of Philadelphia." The resolution categorized the Duckrey School land as “unused” and “unnecessary” and authorized transfer of the land to the City of Philadelphia in exchange for the same amount that the city sold the land for.

Left unmentioned during the October vote was the fact that the City intended to turn over the land to NewCourtland for one dollar. Or the fact that Commissioner Archie had been a former board member (this wasn’t disclosed until complaints about the deal surfaced in February). Or that Armbrister had made the request, despite the fact that his wife Denise sits on the School Reform Commission. Archie recused himself from the vote – since his law firm represented NewCourtland, but Denise Armbrister did not. Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky also abstained from the vote for unclear reasons.

Special treatment for NewCourtland: The specifics of this process are particularly questionable because the District clearly broke with established practices. In June 2009 the District passed a new land management policy which laid out a set of guidelines for land use, purchase, and sale. Key elements of the policy are getting "fair market value," alerting the public, and soliciting bids. None of this happened with NewCourtland. In fact, the District gave no advance notice of the NewCourtland vote. Resolution A21 was a "walk-on" resolution, meaning it wasn’t on the SRC docket the previous week for publication and discussion. Instead, it went straight to vote.

What’s really going on? Although the deal ultimately fell through – the land has allegedly returned to District control after HUD declined to fund the NewCourtland project – major issues remain.

  1. Where’s the scrutiny of the District’s $2.3 billion dollar capital budget which takes a look at building and construction as well as land use and ownership? To its credit, the District puts out copious information on the operating budget, which is also subjected to public hearings. But the public knows far too little about the complicated capital budget. Of greater concern is the lack of scrutiny of the complex web of relationships – personal, political, financial and professional – surrounding capital projects.
  2. The District’s new land management policy raises lots of concerns (which I hope to go into in a future post). But the major question is: what is the dialogue around the use of public land? With hundreds of schools and various properties, the District is a huge landowner. Yet it has failed to articulate a framework and understanding of its current land uses and needs, as well as its future goals for development. A piecemeal sales approach with the only consideration being an apparently subjective interpretation of "fair market value" leaves out a responsible understanding of how precious public land needs to be put to use for the public benefit.
  3. Where’s the public accountability for the School Reform Commission’s decisionmaking process? Under Chair Robert Archie, the SRC rarely meets with the public beyond their regular sessions and does little to make themselves available to the media. SRC commissioners have gotten better at asking some questions in public – in particular Commissioner Johnny Irizarry – but none show any indication that the public sessions are where they get their primary information.

Last August, Parents United for Public Education filed a freedom of information request for a log of questions Ackerman receives from the commissioners. Recently the Office of Open Records ruled in our favor, ordering the District to release the log of questions from SRC commissioners to the public or provide an affidavit explaining why questions were redacted. The District provided us with a heavily redacted copy, but the log indicates that while most Commissioners remain largely silent and aloof in public they are asking plenty of questions – and getting their answers – behind closed doors.

While this shows commissioners’ interest in particular District affairs, in public, it’s almost impossible to tell what their specific interests – and conflicts – might be. For example, according to the superintendent’s log, SRC Chair Archie submitted 50 inquiries in a five-month time span, almost two-thirds of which the District refused to disclose. It’s simply unacceptable that so much inquiry and business is conducted beyond the public scrutiny. And when questionable dealings like the property transfer to NewCourtland come forward, there’s no room to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Finally, it should be noted that this issue was brought to light not by government agencies or officials who are charged with being watchdogs, but by ordinary residents who did their homework, spoke up, and held fast to the belief that having political connections didn’t mean you got to dash the dreams of children and teachers.

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