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Can’t sell off a school that never was closed

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

You may wonder whether a school closing decision can be any more last-minute than what is planned for the Childs School in South Philadelphia.

The School Reform Commission will be hearing testimony May 26 about plans to close Childs and move the program to Barratt next fall. The 90-day school closing process required by state law means that it won’t be until August 25 that the Commission decides officially whether to relocate Childs. By that point, the move of Childs to Barratt, which is being renovated this summer, will be pretty much a fait accompli.

Yet the School District managed to top that and be even more belated about a school closing decision – with W.S. Peirce School in Grays Ferry, which was shut down in 2007. There the story is of a school and a group of a couple of hundred students, nearly all African American, that appear to have been forgotten by the District.

In spring 2007, as CEO Paul Vallas was preparing to depart, the District announced plans to close Peirce, which had recently converted to a high school, and relocate all the students to South Philadelphia High School. But despite questioning about the process from the Notebook and others like neighborhood activist Venard Johnson, the school was shut down without a hearing process.

Fast forward to April 14, 2010, when the SRC did consider a resolution (A-6) involving Peirce. This one was to allow the District to list the property at 24th and Christian for sale. The Notebook promptly asked whether the District is allowed to sell a school that’s never been officially closed … and got no answer. The SRC passed the resolution the following week.

A month later, there is a little more information. Interim Chief General Counsel Miles Shore and District spokesperson Fernando Gallard both acknowledge that W.S. Peirce never went through the proper school closing process.

Earlier, District Chief Business Officer Michael Masch had confirmed that under state law, "The closing of a school requires a vote of the governing body, no less than 90 days after notice, so we’ll go back and check our records [about Peirce]."

"We’re obviously committed to and will comply with all state laws and School District policies," Masch added.

But there is no answer yet as to what they are planning to do about it. For right now, Masch said W.S. Peirce is functioning as the District’s "emergency auxiliary school" in the event that another school has to be relocated.

Hearings might appear to be a pointless exercise. The damage has been done. An SRC hearing called in 2007 would have at least surfaced some of the complexities of the decision. A public discussion almost certainly would have highlighted the challenges posed for struggling South Philadelphia High School to abruptly transfer in a couple of hundred students from the other end of the neighborhood and from a school that by the District’s own admission was a failed effort at a high school conversion.

Given that history, perhaps belated hearings about the closing of W.S. Peirce, shut down three years ago, could be useful after all.

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