Two nights after some 500 Clifton Heights residents staged a protest on what they call the Delaware County borough’s last remaining sliver of open space, the Upper Darby school board postponed a vote that would have been a critical step toward building a new middle school on the land.
Board members insist they will still vote to cancel the borough’s 1977 lease on the district-owned ball fields and move ahead with the plan for a $60 million, 950-student middle school. The delay, they said, is reaching agreements with community groups, such as the Boys and Girls Clubs and the Police Athletic League, so they can continue using the site.
“We hope and pray that the new Clifton Heights middle school is the heartbeat of the borough,” said the school board president, Rachel Mitchell. She said the board still plans to vote soon on terminating the lease, with an eye toward a new school there by 2023. The district is one of Pennsylvania’s largest and is plagued by chronic classroom overcrowding.
Not so fast, according to the plan’s opponents in the 6,500-person borough.
Borough officials say they’ve recently discovered language in the original deed they believe would prevent Upper Darby from using the North Springfield Road site for a school. What’s more, they say the borough and its youth and athletic groups haven’t reached a deal with the district — and some say they aren’t interested in one.
“Clifton is most alive on that spot,” said Dave DiPhillipo, who organized Sunday’s rally on the site where residents stage events, such as July 4 fireworks and an annual Cow Pie Bingo fund-raiser for the Boys Club. He said giving the land for a school “will be the death of our town."
Joseph Lombardo, mayor of Clifton Heights, said he doesn’t know why the Upper Darby school board decided not to go ahead with Tuesday night’s scheduled vote, but he vowed the borough would continue to fight. He said opponents of the middle school have been buoyed by the finding of language in the deed from the mid-1970′s sale to the school district requiring its use for recreation and related municipal purposes.
Lombardo charged that the planned vote — which would have given 90-day notice to Clifton Heights of the lease termination — was nothing more than “a retaliatory tactic. They’re not anywhere close to putting a shovel in the ground yet, so there’s no need for them to terminate you.”
Upper Darby school leaders — who maintain that Clifton Heights is the only geographically logical site for a new facility that would eliminate overcrowding at its two middle schools — have noted that the finished property will include new ball fields and a new gym that can be used by community groups when school is not in session.
Those assurances have done little to win over borough leaders, such as Stephen Goetz, president of the Clifton Heights Boys Club, who says he hasn’t met with Upper Darby School Superintendent Daniel McGarry and doesn’t plan to. He insists it’s a matter between the district and borough council members who oppose the new school.
“It’s not just me,” Goetz said. “I’m not putting my name on signing something.”
“This is really not about a school or taxes — it’s not about any of that stuff,” said DiPhillipo, the protest organizer and a lifelong resident of Clifton Heights who went to Upper Darby High School. “It’s about preserving that open space.”
He questioned why the district hadn’t looked into environmentally cleaning up and using one of two abandoned industrial sites within the borough.
Mitchell, the school board president, said the district’s lawyers are not convinced the language in the deed would prevent the school construction and predicted the vote on terminating the lease still could come as early as this month. The board authorized a $2.5 million feasibility study this year.
“We have children in overcrowded schools right now,” Mitchell said. “We have children learning in trailers [or] basements with no windows, and class sizes over 30. … I sure hope that [the] political powers that be do not hold this up, for the sake of the children.”