Could opening of new Mayfair school be delayed?

The Zoning Board of Adjustments delayed a vote on the new Mayfair school, frustrating district officials and threatening the school’s opening.

Rendering of new K-8 school planned for the area behind Lincoln High School. SOURCE: SCHOOL DISTRICT OF PHILADELPHIA

Chances are increasing that a new elementary school planned for Mayfair will not be able to open on time.

The Zoning Board of Adjustment on Oct. 16 decided to hold its decision on a project that would allow the 180,000-square-foot K-8 school to be built on a 95-acre campus that also includes Abraham Lincoln High School.

School District of Philadelphia staffers and contractors were left frustrated by the hearing, and an attorney representing Gilbane Building Company was concerned the delay could impact an “extremely tight” timeline.

“I think we’ll have a problem making the construction deadline,” attorney Matt McClure told the ZBA.

McClure said workers need to get shovels in the ground in November for the school to open by fall of 2021.

Nonetheless, ZBA chairman Frank DiCicco asked the Mayfair Civic Association to organize another meeting with the district and submit a letter of support or opposition by the board’s Nov. 6 meeting.

As of Monday evening, that meeting has not been scheduled, Mayfair Civic President Donny Smith told the Northeast Times

He said he’s not sure whether the meeting would be open to the public, or just between community and district leaders. Smith told residents to check the Mayfair Civic Facebook page for updates.

Issues between neighbors and the district came to a head at a Sept. 16 civic association meeting, when residents pressured the school to agree to a community benefits agreement that addressed a number of points, including public-use fields, security and fencing. 

Sixth District Councilman Bobby Henon addresses School District of Philadelphia officials Monday, Sept. 16, during the Mayfair Civic Association meeting. TIMES FILE PHOTO

Smith said he has been in communication with Gilbane but is struggling to get answers from the school district. Any CBA would need to be approved by the district. 

“We’ve been trying to work things out with the school district,” Smith said in an interview. “It just hasn’t quite worked out.” 

“It’s really unfortunate. It doesn’t always have to be this way. This isn’t our first rodeo with the School District,” he added. “I think the community always is willing to work things out but the school district just always seems to put the community as an afterthought.”

School District of Philadelphia representatives did not return a request for comment.

Mayfair’s “first rodeo” with the district came more than a decade ago, when it was decided that Lincoln would get a new building.

Residents are still soured from that experience. They were promised community-use fields on the lawn near Ryan and Rowland avenues and new and improved fencing, Smith said. 

“When it didn’t happen, the school district, in a sense, just put its middle finger up and said sorry,” he said. “And that really, really left a bad taste in people’s mouth.”

Those same issues and more were included in the CBA, which was drafted by the civic association in conjunction with a host of other neighborhood organizations.

McClure, at the hearing, said the document dealt with issues that weren’t related to the variances Gilbane is seeking for the project. The zoning application was for use, height, parking and other permits.

“The issues that were raised at the RCO (registered community organization) meeting did not involve at all the design of the project but involved, rather, the construction of playing fields that were unrelated to the project itself,” McClure told the board.

By that time, DiCicco had seemingly already decided to do a “hear and hold,” meaning board members would listen to a presentation and conduct a final vote at a later date.

An aide to Sixth District Councilman Bobby Henon testified at the meeting in support of the “hear and hold.”

McClure said the new school is urgently needed to address overcrowding at nearby schools, especially Mayfair Elementary. Last year, the school had 1,910 students in a building designed for 955, according to district metrics.

The new school is being designed to accommodate 1,660, though some community leaders, including Smith and state Rep. Joe Hohenstein, have worried that number is low considering the area’s population growth.

Neighborhood leaders have maintained that they support the school. They say they just want it done right.

Smith said he still hopes the civic association and associated groups can reach an agreement with the school district before Nov. 6, when the ZBA is expected to render a decision.

“We’re not asking for the moon,” he said. ••