SRC sells schools for pennies when the district needs millions

     The pending sale of the Germantown High School (shown) and Fulton Elementary properties caught neighborhood groups by surprise. (NewsWorks, file art)

    The pending sale of the Germantown High School (shown) and Fulton Elementary properties caught neighborhood groups by surprise. (NewsWorks, file art)

    The School Reform Commission (SRC) recently announced the pending sales of 11 schools for $14.2 million, an amount that will net the School District just $2 million after closing costs and other expenses are factored in. There’s just one problem.

     The 11 schools in question are valued at a total of $76 million under the city’s new property valuation system — the Actual Value Initiative.

    That means PIDC, the quasi-public agency that handled the sales on the School District’s behalf, sold the 11 school buildings for less than 19 percent of what the city says they’re worth, even as the School District is struggling to close a multimillion-dollar budget deficit.

    Bargain-basement prices!

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    To make matters worse, an online property listing titled PHL School Sales shows that PIDC’s asking price for each property was far below the market value that the city’s Office of Property Assessment placed on the properties just months before they were sold.

    Edward Bok High School, for instance, was valued at more than $17.8 million by the city for 2014-15.

    PIDC’s asking price for the building was less than 10 percent of that, and the 338,000 square-foot building was ultimately sold to Scannapieco Development for $2.1 million — not quite 12 percent of its value.

    According to the city’s Actual Value Initiative, the combined values of Germantown High School, Fulton Elementary School, Carroll High School, Smith Elementary School and Vare Elementary School was $30,782,800. PIDC sold the schools to the Concordia Group for a total of $6.8 million — about 22 percent of their value.

    The Leidy School, which was valued at just over $3 million, sold for $2.3 million. It appeared to be the school whose sale price was closest to its actual value.

    However, the combined value of Communications Tech, Pepper Middle School, Reynolds Elementary School and Walton Elementary Schools was $24,357,800. The Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) bought the buildings for $3 million — about 12 percent of their value.

    More to the Sharswood sale

    Reynolds Elementary School, which sits in the middle of a community known as Sharswood, is an interesting sale.

    That community has suffered for years under the twin ills of poverty and abandonment, as I reported in a series last year.

    The sale of the school to PHA lines up with a previous plan to tear down the nearby Blumberg Apartments — a public-housing high rise that has long been seen as an impediment to development in the neighborhood.

    That could be changing soon, because PHA was chosen as one of nine agencies nationwide to win a Choice Neighborhoods Planning Grant.

    The $500,000 grant, along with a promised $400,000 from the City of Philadelphia, is supposed to aid in putting together a plan to revitalize Sharswood, the neighborhood where the Blumberg Apartments and the Reynolds School are located.

    Some neighborhood residents have asked where that $500,000 is going, but a spokesperson told me that PHA is working with more than a dozen partners, including neighborhood groups and city agencies such as the Office of Housing and Community Development (OHCD).

    When the planning process is complete, PHA will apply for a $30 million Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant to bring the plan to fruition.

    The implosion of much of the high-rise portion of the Blumberg Apartments will be part of that plan, according to PHA.

    Such a move would clear the way for the kind of development that would connect Sharswood with rapidly developing areas like Brewerytown to the west, Francisville to the south and Temple University to the east.

    With hundreds of vacant parcels, including entire city blocks, located within the census tracts that make up Sharswood, an influx of HUD dollars could lead to a frenzy of development.

    It could also lead to gentrification — moving out poor residents for the rich.

    City Council President Darrell Clarke, who represents the area, told me Friday in a radio interview that affordable housing will be part of the plan in Sharswood.

    Still, I’m nervous about the prospect of poor people of color being displaced in the long run.

    But gentrification is not my primary concern right now.

    Undervalued communities

    My main concern is that schools in impoverished neighborhoods across the city have once again been devalued.

    Not only were they closed, displacing vulnerable children as a result. They are now a seeming metaphor for our school system as a whole.

    It’s almost as if the schools, the children and even the communities in which they sit are viewed as having little value.

    There’s still time for Philadelphians to be heard on this issue.

    The next step in the school sale process is to seek community input, and though I’m skeptical about the true power of the community’s voice, we must be heard just the same.

    Even if sales are already pending and agreements have already been made, the promised community engagement must be made to be more than window dressing.

    My job is to make sure our voices are heard and, in truth, it’s your job, too.

    Listen to Solomon Jones from 7 to 10 am weekdays on 900amWURD.

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