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Community activists question quick school-property deal

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

North Philadelphia activists continue their fight over a parcel of land behind Tanner Duckrey Elementary School.

Last October the School Reform Commission, declaring the property “unused and unnecessary,” voted to convey it to the city. The resolution was fast-tracked – introduced and approved the same day.

It was not yet public that the city planned to transfer the land for $1 to NewCourtland, a nonprofit development company, for a senior citizen housing complex. Nor was it known that SRC Chair Robert Archie, who abstained from the vote, is a former NewCourtland board member.

News of the deal sparked concern among neighborhood activists, who claimed they had no notice or opportunity to have input about the property, appraised at half a million dollars.

District policy allows land to be sold to the highest bidder or transferred for community or economic development purposes. It also calls for “an appropriate level of community involvement and engagement” during real estate transfers.

The NewCourtland deal is now on hold because a federal housing grant did not come through, but community activist Judith Robinson said she would continue to oppose the proposal and plans to conduct a letter-writing campaign.

Fellow activist Danita Bates said she wants the property’s tennis and basketball courts rebuilt and a playground added.

Philadelphia attorney Leon Williams is working pro bono to study the deal, including NewCourtland’s ties with Archie.

“I’m interested in that angle to see if there were any ethics violations,” Williams said.

District Chief Business Officer Michael Masch didn’t see any ethical problems.

“It’s not like someone’s talking about putting a store there and making money off of it,” Masch said. “We’re talking about a piece of land that has not been used by the School District for years.”

But Robinson wants to discuss with Superintendent Arlene Ackerman getting top dollar from future land sales so students will benefit.

“We want the money to come back to the School District so our children can learn to read,” she said.

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