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Community to discuss closed school’s future after judge blocks sale

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

Key stakeholders in the gentrifying neighborhood of Point Breeze don’t want the former Walter Smith Elementary School building to be converted to apartments or condominiums. They filed suit to try to stop the sale, but to no avail.

Last month, however, Judge Nina Wright Padilla of the Court of Common Pleas halted the sale of Smith and four other schools after seeking public comment – including from City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, who represents the Second District, which includes Point Breeze.

On Thursday, Johnson will speak at a meeting in Point Breeze to discuss next steps for the use of the shuttered school building. The session will be hosted by Claudia Sherrod, executive director of the nonprofit community development organization South Philadelphia HOMES Inc.

The School District has been trying to sell the buildings since 2014. It was hoping to use proceeds from the sale to shore up its funding during a time of fiscal instability – as well as prevent vacant schools from being eyesores in vulnerable neighborhoods.

The School Reform Commission in 2014 agreed to sell the five schools to a developer, the Concordia Group, for $6.8 million. That fall, the Point Breeze Neighborhood Development Coalition tried unsuccessfully to stop the sale to Concordia — a Washington, D.C.-based realty group known for building large developments — on the grounds that individual schools within the bundle were never offered for competitive bidding by the District or the SRC.

The District is required to seek court approval for building sales to private entities, and it was as part of that process that Judge Wright Padilla intervened and effectively halted the sale. The District is now appealing the decision.

The shuttered schools — Carroll in Port Richmond, Fulton and Germantown High School in Germantown, Smith and Vare in South Philly — were among 23 schools closed in 2013. (Vare was moved from its original site into the building formerly occupied by George Washington Elementary.)

The controversy over what to do with the vacated buildings began almost immediately when City Council President Darrell Clarke offered the District the additional $50 million they requested from City Council that year in exchange for the titles to all of the District’s unused property.

The SRC and Superintendent William Hite turned Clarke down and chose to begin selling the properties itself. Hite said this would allow for more community input.

The resistance to the most recent bundle of school sales has primarily come from Point Breeze. The Neighborhood Development Coalition said it was trying to get a charter provider to open a school in the building formerly occupied by Smith, at 19th and Wharton Streets.

"My clients are working with community leaders to get either a new charter school or relocation and/or expansion of an existing charter school,” said Deborah Cianfrani, an attorney representing the coalition. “They originally had Independence Charter lined up, but lost them when the SRC approved the sale of the building to Concordia.”

The coalition doesn’t "just want to put in a charter,” she said. “It won’t just be a school, but there will also be parts for community use.”

Councilman Johnson has also advocated that the neighborhood needs a school to replace Smith.

“The councilman has been active in trying to seek out any educational provider that might want to come in, like a high-quality charter school, and he’s talked to several,” said Steven Cobb, Johnson’s director of legislation. Any new charter would have to be approved by the SRC.

In 2014, Cianfrani sought a court injunction to stop the sale, in part, by arguing that the $6.8 million deal with the Concordia Group “resulted from private negotiations rather than competitive bidding.”

The court denied that request, but ordered that the sale proceed according to the law requiring building sales to undergo a public hearing and court approval. The SRC had waived that provision of the school code in previous building sales.

William J. Collins, one of Concordia’s owners, said in an email that Concordia is still under contract with the District to purchase the properties.

The District filed an appeal to Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court last week. Spokesman Fernando Gallard said the District still intends to sell the portfolio of schools to Concordia.

Thursday’s meeting, with Councilman Johnson slated as a main speaker, begins at 4:30 p.m. at 1634 Wharton St.

“The community just wants to keep a school there. That’s what [Johnson’s] been advocating for months,” said Cobb. “He supports keeping some sort of educational use in a way that allows the District to recoup some money.”

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