Over some public objections, the Philadelphia school board voted Thursday night to pay $7 million to Drexel University to help cover the costs of a new building to house two public schools in West Philadelphia.
The building — which will house both Powel Elementary and Science Leadership Academy Middle School (SLAMS) — will rise on the site of the old University City High School, which the school system permanently closed in 2013, saying at the time that there was no need for the space. In 2014, it sold the building to Drexel for $25 million.
Drexel has raised $29 million for the new building at 36th and Filbert. The district would contribute $7 million more, but Drexel would retain ownership; the school system would lease the building for $12 per year for 35 years.
The new building is scheduled to open in 2020, and the district has agreed to pay operational costs for running the building, plus make some capital improvements and repairs.
Powel, a K-4, is severely overcrowded and has environmental issues; SLAMS, which opened in 2016, does not have a permanent home and is outgrowing its current space on Drexel’s campus.
Board member Angela McIver said that while “in principle, I don’t believe that the School District should let go of any of our real estate,” she lives in West Philadelphia and is acutely aware of the community’s need for a new building. She backed the action, which passed unanimously.
Christopher McGinley, another board member, called the action “a very responsible move on the part of the district. If we were to rebuild Powel School ourselves, we would be spending way more than this.”
The board said it would be mindful of the example of Penn Alexander, another West Philadelphia school that receives help from a university. Penn Alexander, opened in 2001, receives $1,330 per child from the University of Pennsylvania, and was created as a way to attract more Penn faculty and staff to live in the neighborhood surrounding the campus.
Penn Alexander has been wildly popular, driving up real estate prices in the neighborhood and forcing out longtime residents who can no longer afford to live in the school’s catchment.
Board members said Drexel has committed to maintaining the schools’ racial and economic diversity.
But some in the public are wary of the deal. Deborah Grill, a retired Philadelphia teacher, said she did not understand why the renter — the district — would pay any money toward a building it would not own.
“This deal only underscores the irony of the district now renting a school building from Drexel on the site of the school building that it sold to Drexel a few years ago,” said Grill.
The board said it would retain the current Powel building, on 36th Street near Powelton, for possible future use.
Two more takeaways from Thursday’s meeting
No Belmont sale — yet. The board abruptly pulled a resolution that would have sold the building now occupied by Belmont Charter to a company set up by the charter organization.
The building needs significant repairs and upgrades, parents and school officials say, but they cannot make them because they don’t own the building.
But Belmont, at 4030 Brown St., is a neighborhood school, meaning that it’s the default public school option for students who live in its attendance zone. Some board members and others have expressed concern that the district would be handing over both the building and its presence in the neighborhood.
The Belmont sale was pulled because, board president Joyce Wilkerson said, a bill introduced this week in Harrisburg by House Speaker Mike Turzai “would codify a designation where Belmont Charter School could become exempt from all state and local oversight."
Some charters win renewal, and more seats for a MaST school. Independence Charter School West, Philadelphia Montessori Charter School, Universal Audenried Promise Neighborhood Partnership Charter School, and Mathematics, Science and Technology Community Charter School II were all renewed by the board.
Universal Audenried has been in limbo since 2016, when the district staff recommended it not get a new charter based on academic and management concerns. The old School Reform Commission tabled any decision. The new, five-year charter is retroactive to 2016, and requires Universal to meet certain conditions or surrender its charter.
MaST II, a second campus of a nationally recognized school located in the Northeast, also got the nod to grow significantly, to 1,900 students from 1,250 students.