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After schools are closed, who decides their fate?

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

Cecelia Thompson wants neighborhood residents to have a meaningful say in what happens to closed school buildings in their communities.

Take the shuttered Beeber-Wynnefield Annex, just three blocks from her home in West Philadelphia. It’s one of eight buildings the District is putting on the market, aiming to raise $10 million toward its $629 million budget gap.

The neighborhood doesn’t need another charter school, parent activist Thompson argues – Mastery Charter’s Mann Elementary is right up the street. And residents don’t need more retail – there are plenty of nearby stores, and a new Target recently opened on City Line Avenue.

What’s missing, says Thompson, is a community center within easy walking distance for the hundreds of young children and senior citizens in the neighborhood.

“We know what we want,” said Thompson. “So ask us.”

That, however, is not going to happen – at least not as directly as Thompson would like.

The School District is developing a new Adaptive Reuse Policy to govern the sale of as many as 50 school buildings set to be closed over the next few years. Officials have stressed that the policy will allow for far more community input into what happens to shuttered buildings than ever before. But they have been reluctant to allow widespread public participation at the beginning of the decision-making process, especially on the key question of how a building should be reused.

“It seems to me disingenuous to ask [the public to weigh in on] something we may or may not be able to deliver on,” said District Deputy for Strategic Initiatives Danielle Floyd, who is overseeing the District’s facilities master planning process.

The School Reform Commission (SRC) was supposed to vote last month on an earlier version of the Adaptive Reuse Policy. That version called for District staff to internally make this most fundamental decision about what happens to a school – whether it would be slated for educational, public, or private reuse – without any formal public input.

In practical terms, that meant that neighborhood residents would have had no say on whether the Beeber-Wynnefield Annex became, for example, a charter school, a supermarket, or a community center. They would have only been involved in deciding, for instance, which supermarket it became.

But after Thompson testified that parents needed more time to understand the policy and argued that communities should have more of a role, the SRC, prompted by Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky, postponed its decision.

In the three weeks since, District staff have been busy consulting with the SRC and revising the policy.

According to the most recent draft policy, the District now intends to accept proposals from all types of buyers for every property listed for sale. That represents a significant departure from its earlier position. But officials will still retain some ability to steer buildings towards particular types of reuse through internally developed “evaluation rubrics” that will be used to score proposals from potential buyers.

And the newly proposed version of the Adaptive Reuse Policy will still tightly limit the opportunities for parents and community residents to be involved in real decision-making.

According to officials, that’s because it’s important to strike a balance between inclusiveness and timely decision-making. More community involvement might delay the process and lead properties to languish, they fear.

“The worst thing for a community is having an empty building sitting there for a substantial period of time,” said Dworetzky. “We’ve all seen examples in Philadelphia of what happens to an abandoned building. That’s something nobody wants.”

Who knows best?

The Beeber-Wynnfield Annex is a prime example of a District facility that has long sat vacant. The facility was closed in 2004 and hasn’t been used since.

Nevertheless, it still has a presence in the neighborhoods around 53rd and Euclid Streets in West Philadelphia.

On a rainy evening in mid-May, half a dozen teenagers played basketball on the blacktop outside the building. Despite a makeshift hoop that teetered precariously with each shot, Da-Juan Echols, a 9th grader at Boys’ Latin, said he and his friends come there to play almost every day.

“It’s closer than the [52nd and] Parkside courts,” which are a 10-minute walk, said Echols.

Asked how they would like to see the property converted, the boys didn’t hesitate.

“They should make it a gym that’s open year-round,” said Khaymir Lowry, a 10th grader at Overbrook.

Cecelia Thompson thinks that would be great.

“There’s really nothing in this end [of town] for the children to do,” she said.

But Thompson is worried that outsiders looking in might not understand that. If they just look on a map, she says, they’ll see that there are other recreation centers within a several block radius. What they may not grasp, however, is that there are no direct bus routes, and walking would require crossing a bridge and a busy intersection.

It’s those details that she believes the District can only learn from genuinely listening to residents from the beginning of the process, before the big decisions start being discussed.

“We can tell you how the neighborhood actually is,” said Thompson. “Unless a person actually lives here, they really don’t know.”

That perspective is echoed strongly by Mary Filardo, the executive director of the 21st Century Schools Fund in Washington, DC, and a national expert on school facilities issues.

“If you work with the community in good faith, give them good information, and say, ‘This is a problem we need to solve together,’ people will be creative and cooperative,” said Filardo.

“You will come up with a better idea than you ever could from the central office, with your consultants,” she added.

A limited number of seats at the table

District officials, however, have clearly indicated that they will not be prioritizing that type of grassroots input.

According to the most recent version of the Adaptive Reuse Policy, scheduled for an SRC vote on Monday, June 13 at an unusual 5 p.m. meeting, the primary vehicle for public involvement will be participation on “evaluation teams” that vet proposals from prospective buyers and make a recommendation to the SRC. These teams appear set to play a significant role in deciding the future of closed buildings, akin to the role played by School Advisory Councils in the Renaissance Schools matching process.

But getting a seat on one of the teams looks to be a challenging prospect, especially for individuals not affiliated with established organizations. The policy calls for each team to include only “two to four representatives from community/civic organizations and stakeholders.” They will join District staff as well as representatives from the City Planning Commission and the relevant councilmanic and legislative districts.

For Cecilia Thompson, that’s not enough.

“The lazy way is to go through the City Planning Commission and other organizations who claim to know the neighborhood,” she said. “We live here. We shop here. Our children go to the neighborhood parks. Ask us, because we’ll be the ones utilizing” a reused building.

District officials say interested members of the public who don’t make it on to the evaluation teams would still have the chance to make their opinions known during public hearings at which they will be able to listen and respond to all the proposals for a given building.

“The public can make comments that will be taken into consideration by the evaluation team,” said District Assistant General Counsel Susan Fetterman, who has been involved in developing the policy.

“But it’s just not appropriate to have [public involvement] at the stage before we even get to [reviewing] proposals,” Fetterman added.

What comes next?

Given the SRC’s close involvement in directing revisions to the policy over the last week during private discussions of its “operations committee,” headed by Dworetzky, the policy appears likely to pass.

District officials, however, say they are still taking feedback on the most recent revisions, which are posted online and have been distributed at the District’s Parent and Family Resource Centers.

But even after the policy is eventually adopted, there will still be big decisions to be made around how it is implemented.

One of the biggest implementation decisions has to do with how many evaluation teams will be created. The policy does not spell out whether there will be a separate team for each listed building or whether a smaller number of teams – perhaps based on the city’s 12 planning analysis sections – would evaluate proposals for multiple buildings within that area.

Asked about the pros and cons of each approach, Dworetzky said, “If you want to get the most intense involvement from people, it’s probably better to draw the evaluation teams’ jurisdictions narrowly.”

But then again, he added, “You’ve got to staff it all, and you’ve got to make sure you get everybody trained. The teams have to be set up in a way so the evaluations will be done seriously.”

Fewer teams would mean fewer seats for community residents to fill, making it even harder for neighborhood residents like Cecelia Thompson to be involved in the decision-making process.

Further marginalizing voices like Thompson’s would be a huge mistake, said Filardo of the 21st Century Schools Fund.

“The folly of thinking you can do this without the local knowledge of the communities in which schools are operated is just such arrogance, based on an enormous amount of ignorance about planning and development,” said Filardo.

“You have to get local knowledge. Without it, you won’t get good decisions.”

This story is a product of a reporting partnership on the facilities master plan between the Notebook and PlanPhilly.