Copyright 2014 Philadelphia Newspapers, LLC
All Rights Reserved
The sale of the old William Penn High School to Temple University is a done deal, as far as the Philadelphia School District is concerned.
But a group of North Philadelphia neighbors is crying foul, alleging that the process was tainted and that the community's wishes were ignored in the name of political horse-trading. Dozens gathered Tuesday outside the school, waving signs and declaring their dissatisfaction.
"This was just rammed through, a land grab," said Priscilla Woods, a longtime Yorktown resident and activist, standing along North Broad Street. "But the fat lady did not sing."
She and other protesters said neighborhood groups were exploring legal options to try to halt the transaction.
Last week, the School Reform Commission declared William Penn permanently closed, designating it as unused property and selling it to Temple for $15 million. They suspended part of the public school code to bypass the formal hearings that are usually associated with such actions.
The university plans to turn the 14-acre site into athletic fields and recreation space for its students and a job-training academy run by the Laborers' District Council Education and Training/Apprenticeship Fund.
That plan angers some in the community who remember a promise made when William Penn was temporarily closed in 2009. Then-Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman said it would reopen within five years as a career and technical school for district students.
But the district's financial fortunes have fallen precipitously since then, and the commission has closed dozens of other schools, including several in North Philadelphia, to save money.
The sale of closed schools has proven controversial. City Council President Darrell L. Clarke, who wanted the city to handle all school building transactions, believes the district has not moved fast enough to sell its buildings.
Community members involved in the process say they were told by district officials that Clarke, whose Council district includes both William Penn and Temple, ordered that the sale of the high school to the university happen this month as a condition of the city's borrowing $57 million for the district.
They say they were shut out of the process and added that athletic fields will mar their neighborhood and devalue their properties.
"Historic Yorktown is not for sale!" their signs read. "No Stadiums in Yorktown!"
Both district officials and Clarke say there were no strings attached to the city's borrowing.
Bunmi Samuel, a North Philadelphia resident and member of the William Penn Development Coalition, which was the only bidder for the site other than Temple, said that as recently as May, neighbors were told that a sale was considerably down the road.
But this month, Samuel said, district officials told coalition officials that "their hands were tied," and that the William Penn sale had to be fast-tracked.
"We were sacrificial lambs in this political deal," said Samuel.
Clarke said he thinks the Temple-led job training plan will be good for the neighborhood, and dismissed any notion that there was some quid pro quo in place.
"It was widely known that Temple University had an interest in the site for some time," he said. "This is a good thing for this location, for the city of Philadelphia. There's going to be full participation in the discussion phase of how this site gets developed, and I feel comfortable that the educational opportunities at this site will be something that people have requested."
District spokesman Fernando Gallard said that no deal was made, and that the sale happened quickly because Temple was willing to move fast and the district is in acute financial distress.
"We wanted to move these buildings as quickly as possible and put the dollars back into our budget," Gallard said. "It's hard to find a buyer that will move quickly on a property of this size, a property this complex."
Faye Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Action Network, the civil-rights group founded by the Rev. Al Sharpton, said she is outraged.
"The sale of William Penn High School to Temple University doesn't pass the smell test," Anderson said. "This was not a transparent process."
She and others opposed to the deal said that the selling price was too low. Clarke said that the assessment on the property was higher than the selling price primarily because the ultimate land use will not generate much revenue.
State Rep. W. Curtis Thomas (D., Phila.) said he was furious at the "blatant disregard of the interests and wishes of the residents of the communities east of Broad Street."
The fix was in, he contended, for Temple to win the bid.
"This sale was hostile, illegal, arrogant, and disrespectful," Thomas said. "This transaction must be reversed."