FOX 29 Investigates: Sale Of Vacant City Schools To Church Pulled

- A Southwest Philadelphia church eyeing expansion puts up good money to turn a neighborhood eyesore into its new home. But the deal falls through.

Now, church leaders wonder who really held up their purchase of two vacant Philadelphia schools, and why? Jeff Cole and FOX 29 Investigates take a look.

It's a hulking, concrete compound on acres of land. Graffiti coats the 70s-era school shuttered almost four years now. Tires, mattresses and more pile up outside.

But Pastor Eric Simmons sees possibilities here: "I immediately looked at it and said, 'Wow, you know, this would be a great opportunity for our church to move and relocate."

The First Baptist Church of Paschall hopes to inject new life into the vacant George Pepper Middle School on South 84th Street near Lindbergh Boulevard.

Renovating its own buildings would be costly. So, the church sought a loan to buy and fix up Pepper and have a charter school move into the old Communications Technology High School next door.

"They gave us a tour of the building," Simmons said. "We saw that school, we saw the other school. That same day we put in an offer. We wrote it up."

The church and other prospective buyers showed proposals to the Eastwick Friends & Neighbors Coalition in the fall of 2015.

"Let Your Voice Be Heard & Your Vote Be Counted" a flier said. Philadelphia City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson came.

The church got two-thirds of the votes cast that day. But Simmons says they were told afterward it was a non-binding "straw vote."

Cole: "And your belief was is that this was to show real support here?"
Simmons: "Exactly."
Cole: "And that's what you got?"
Pastor: "Exactly."

The school district listed the sites at $3 million but agreed to sell for just over $2 million. The happy church signed a letter of intent.

Then, the deal languished for months.

A resolution to sell was yanked from the School Reform Commission's November meeting agenda. Stunned church leaders want to know why.

"The city has specifically asked us to hold off on the sale, so we're cooperating with the administration," SRC Member Bill Green announced at the meeting, citing a land use study being done in the Eastwick community.

Terry Williams is a spokesman for the neighbors' coalition.

"This is a huge property here, OK? Many thousands of square feet, very sensitive land, we're concerned about who would take this on," Williams said, mentioning later that the Pepper school has flooded during major storms in the past.

His group used a petition and sent the SRC an open letter to stop the sale. Neither document mentioned the would-be buyer was a church.

"We're not in opposition to anyone," Williams said. "We just want the sites developed properly because the sites are in our backyards."

Simmons says he tried to set up more meetings with neighbors, as Councilman Johnson had asked, but none were scheduled.

"Did you ask the SRC to pull it?" Cole asked Johnson.

"No, not at all, not at all," he answered.

The councilman says the school district too often seeks top dollar for properties without consulting residents, and he claims the pastor didn't follow through with the neighbors in this case.

Cole asked Johnson about the residents going to the community group, putting some money on the table and showing their proposal but not getting the group's support.

"They were asked for an environmental impact study, they were asked for their financials," Johnson said, before adding, "You're talking about a community, right, that never had a voice here in the City of Philadelphia."

Simmons shared a text message the councilman sent last year indicating he has "final say!"

Johnson told us it meant he supported Simmons' plan over that of another interested church.

"I don't even talk that way, 'I have final say.' That's not the case," Johnson said.

First Baptist Church of Paschall hired a lawyer to look into whether its rights were violated, and challenged the district and Johnson about his text message and the process to just buy property here.

A city lawyer wrote the councilman "plays no decision-making or legal role;" he just believes the church "should engage with community organizers."

Meanwhile, the district keeps spending to patrol and clean the Pepper/ComTech site.

Simmons fears congregants are out $12,000 they chipped in to help pay for plans.

Marguerite Barnes, who was married in the church 23 years ago, remains active and lives near the schools.

Barnes said she sees "a tremendous amount of trash, debris, there's been several fires over there, a lot of graffiti inside."

She's disappointed after going door to door, gathering support for the church's move.

"It's politics," she said. "You know, we did everything that was asked. The building has been sitting. The school district, of course, needs money. The church needed a building."

City leaders say Philadelphia International Airport also has interest in these school properties and supports the planning study on Eastwick public lands, which could take a year and cost $255,000.

The church hopes to be included in the planning process.

A schools spokesman says this is an example of the district working to get taxpayers the highest return.

The mayor's office says it can't tell the district not to sell, but the community should be part of determining Eastwick's future.

Have a tip for the FOX 29 Investigates team? Email us at fox29.undercover@foxtv.com or like Jeff Cole's Facebook page and send us a message!

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