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District to decide best use for closed schools before public input

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

If your neighborhood public school is closed, do you think it should become a condominium, a park, or a charter school?

Under current plans, the School District won’t be asking you.

According to their proposed “Adaptive Reuse Policy,” the District wants to decide internally whether closed schools should be designated for educational, public/nonprofit, or private re-use. District officials will give the public the chance to get involved – by evaluating proposals – but only after a decision about what types of buyers are eligible has already been made.

The proposed policy, however, is still in draft form. District officials say they want to hear feedback from the public at a series of District-run community meetings, at upcoming School Reform Commission meetings, and via their website.

To help inform and encourage such public engagement, the Notebook and PlanPhilly have launched a new reporting partnership to cover the facilities master planning process.

Last week, District Deputy for Strategic Initiatives Danielle Floyd and consultant Tracy Richter of DeJong-Richter sat down with the Notebook for an extensive 90-minute interview. Each day this week, the Notebook and Plan Philly will provide an excerpt from that interview focusing on a key question about how the facilities master plan will work in practice. (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday)

Today’s question: What role will the public have in deciding what happens to school buildings that are closed and sold?

Notebook: Looking at the proposed policy, it seemed that the public really isn’t involved until the [type of reuse] is designated.

Floyd: That’s true. The way that it is currently structured, yes.

Notebook: Why is that?

Floyd: I think that when we worked on putting this policy together, where we thought the public could have the greatest input was in evaluating proposals [and] being able to make a recommendation to the [School Reform Commission, or SRC] about [what would be beneficial to] their particular community.

Notebook: So allow me to play devil’s advocate here…If a school building is proposed to be converted into housing, inevitably there are going to be residents in the surrounding community who are going to be upset about that. But it seems that the District is retaining the sole authority to decide which communities get housing and which get public uses … Why would the public not be involved in deciding what type of reuse is created for their school?

Richter: I might be able to talk to that. There are some restrictions around public facilities that are paid for with public dollars that come in banking laws, and bonding borrowing dollars law, and things like that, that the District gets specifics on from bond council. To dispose of a building isn’t as simple as giving it an appraised value and selling it, in any public entity. The city government can’t go out and sell City Hall because taxpayers paid for that building, for instance. So there’s restrictions around how you can dispose of buildings and what uses they can go to. Although the opportunities for all three are there, it could be restricted to what bond paid for it or what kind of dollars paid for it.

Notebook: So you’re saying that the types of reuses are going to be governed by the legalities and financing?

Richter: As just one component. It’s just one component of a lot of different things. But that is one influence on it, absolutely.

Notebook: But you’re saying the public is not equipped to sort through that as one component?

Richter: That’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m saying that part of, it could be that because of one influence like that, the only thing you can do is sell it to another educational. So in that case, not even the School District has a say, let alone the community. That’s what I’m saying.

Notebook: But for the other cases, why not involve in the public? … Because as I read the policy, it seemed that in the cases where multiple potential types of reuses are available, that the public is not involved in that decision.

Floyd: The way that it is currently written, that’s correct. Which again is why it’s a draft and we’re putting this out there for people to comment on and give us feedback. That may be something that we get back that says there’s a recommendation that the public, a recommendation for a change to the policy is to put that in there. …

I think this is a unique thing for Philadelphia to be doing. The current policy that exists right now, the public … [has] no role at all. So I think what you’re seeing from us is one, a recognition that buildings play a significant role in communities, two, in the conversations that we’ve had as part of this process and even prior to that, people have said we want to be able to be engaged in making decisions about what happens here.

For more on the proposed Adaptive Reuse Policy and the process by which interested buyers will be able to acquire District properties, see a related article from PlanPhilly.

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