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Facilities policies vote postponed till June

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A parent spoke, and the School Reform Commission listened.

In an unusual, instantaneous response to public testimony, the SRC voted Wednesday to table until June decisions about the District’s new proposed Adaptive Reuse and Rightsizing policies regarding the closing of schools and the disposal of vacated properties. 

The postponement came after parent activist Cecelia Thompson pleaded with the SRC to give parents and community members more time to digest  recent revisions to the proposed procedures.

“It is us, the families, who have to live with these decisions. It is best that we be given the respect that we deserve and [get] to see the changes before you take your final vote,” said Thompson. “The SRC can vote on these resolutions at the June planning meeting.”

Saying Thompson’s comments “struck a chord,” Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky proposed a motion to honor her request, and the rest of the commissioners agreed.

A lengthy public discussion of the complex policies – key components of the District’s facilities master planning process – followed. With the District intending to close and list for sale up to 50 buildings, the way it is done will likely have huge implications for communities across the city.

The current draft of the proposed Adaptive Reuse Policy, for example, outlines three potential types of reuse for a given building: educational, public/community, or private. As it currently stands, District staff would retain the right to determine the type of reuse for each shuttered building – whether a closed school gets converted to condominiums, a park, or a charter school, for example.

Dworetzky called for the policy to include more information on how the type of proposed reuse, or “tier,” will be decided.

“We should be saying in here who’s going to decide that, and when it will be decided,” said Dworetzky.

SRC Chairman Robert Archie, meanwhile, asked for clarification on a provision in the proposed policy that says charter operators can be designated “educational users” – and thus be eligible to purchase buildings at prices that are potentially lower than fair market value – only if they agree “not to seek additional seats.”

With several charter operators currently suing the District over what it claims are illegal caps on student enrollment, the question of the District’s ability to manage charter school growth has become a hot-button issue.

After some discussion, there was general agreement among the commissioners and Deputy for Strategic Initiatives Danielle Floyd on the intent of the policy. They said a charter operator bidding on a building should be neither guaranteed additional seats as part of their proposal nor precluded from applying for additional seats under the established protocol for charter modifications. 

It was unclear, however, how the policy would treat charter operators who wish to bid on buildings but choose to disregard the District’s current protocol for expanding enrollment.

Archie also called for the District to specify clear bylaws and conflict of interest policies for those serving on teams that will be asked to vet proposals and recommend to the District a preferred buyer for each building listed for sale.

In response to a question from Commissioner Denise McGregor Armbrister, Floyd said the expected time commitment for those who will serve on the evaluation teams could range from a “couple months” to much longer, depending in part on how many proposals the District receives for a given property.

“It is a little difficult to predict, because we just don’t know what the demand [for buildings] will be moving forward,” said Floyd. 

After the meeting, parent activist Thompson said she was pleased with the postponement and ensuing discussion.

“I basically want to know who’s making the decisions [about the eventual reuses of closed schools],” said Thompson. “We don’t want someone who doesn’t understand the community to come in there and make decisions for us.”

A regular at SRC meetings, Thompson also expressed surprise and gratitude that the commissioners had responded to her request.

“Usually, I just come to these things to make a point,” said Thompson. “I didn’t actually think they would do anything.”

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

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