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Community members halt Temple’s purchase of William Penn property

The university’s plans to build fields and a trade school on the property were delayed with an injunction filed by a coalition of community members.

A local community organization filed an injunction with the state Supreme Court challenging last month’s $15 million sale of the 475,000-square-foot shuttered William Penn High School property to Temple.

The William Penn Development Coalition, alongside residents and local activists, held a press conference and rally July 14 on the East Side Apron of City Hall.

The WPDC members advocated for the reversal of the sale’s approval by the school district’s School Reform Commission. Additionally, they announced their decision to take the issue to court, aiming to halt the sale by way of an injunction.

According to statements on their Facebook page, the coalition believes the SRC has blocked their efforts to purchase the school since 2009. They additionally blame City Council President Darrell Clarke for fast tracking the deal. Numerous WPDC leaders said this resulted in giving the coalition only three days to submit a final bid by June 12, moved up from the original Sept. 12 date.

“The allegations made by WPDC are completely baseless and false,” said Jane Roh, a spokeswoman from Councilman Clarke’s office. “Council President Clarke was long frustrated by the closure of William Penn High School, and then by the School District’s failure to follow through on a promise to return the site to public education use.

“The School District managed the building sale process, not the council president,” Roh added.

After temporarily shuttering William Penn – which is on Broad Street between Master Street and Girard Avenue – in 2010, the school’s promised return began to fade as 24 schools in the district were permanently closed in 2013.

The SRC declared the William Penn property permanently closed last month. The following week, the SRC approved the property’s sale and passed a resolution before the vote that suspended a code requiring a public hearing, which in turn blocked the opportunity for public comment.

An SRC representative declined to comment on the injunction.

State Representative Curtis Thomas, a Democrat whose 181st district encompasses both Temple and William Penn, said he believes the sale of the property to Temple needs to be reversed.

“If the school district of Philadelphia needed money and they needed it right away why would you take $15 million when you can get $32 million?” Thomas told The Temple News.

In 2013 the city assessed the William Penn property for $32.5 million. But due to the school district’s dire finances – which required the city to borrow $57 million this year to fill the school district’s budget gap – the asking price for the property was set at a lower $15 million price tag.

The community coalition formed in 2009 after the SRC recommended to close the property, citing declining enrollment, sagging academic performance and millions in needed repairs.

The coalition proposed the use of the property as a science, technology, engineering and math public school that would allow roughly 700 students to attend and cost approximately $1.1 million to operate, said Inez Henderson-Purnell, director of the coalition. She added that they could form a partnership with Temple for instructor education and receive government support in order to help fund the operational budget.

“You need to look at the broader implications here, the threat to the community first of all,” said Priscilla Woods, treasurer of the coalition. “It’s an opportunity for the school district of Philadelphia to redeem itself with quality education. But it’s [also] the opportunity for this neighborhood to continue to survive.”

“I don’t think it’s about a building anymore,” said Toni Mcilwaine, who graduated from William Penn in 1977. “People are hurt about the community. They’re just hurt that Temple could come by and snatch up everything. They’re hurt that the educational system is just failing.”

In June Temple announced plans to partner with the Laborers’ District Council Education and Training/Apprenticeship Fund. The plans called for the building facing North Broad Street to become a vocational training facility. Temple plans to remove some of the buildings elsewhere on the property to create additional field space for the lacrosse and soccer teams.

“We have good plans for that property,” university spokesman Ray Betzner said. “We can do good plans for that property, for the neighborhood and we think it is going to be a valuable asset and frankly there’s been no change in that. We continue to believe in that.”

Betzner said the sale of William Penn to Temple has yet to be finalized due to the injunction.

“Temple has wanted that building for a long time.” said Yvonne Mills, a 1959 William Penn alumna. “I feel as though now that they have it that, that’s it. You know the city is not going to change its mind about selling the building.”

Sarai Flores can be reached at sarai.abisag.flores@temple.edu or on Twitter @saraiaflores.

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