City leaders in Philadelphia, as in Chicago and other cities, have decided to sell off or give away some of their most beautiful and historic school buildings.

In Philly, the school district closed Germantown, one of the city’s elegant buildings, on the eve of its 100th birthday, in 2013.

After months of neglect and thousands of dollars of unpaid taxes, the historic pillared building at 40 E. High St., as well as an elementary school sold that year, is going up for sale again.

“After the schools were closed, the city had a responsibility to ensure efficient disposal and redevelopment of these properties,” said Emaleigh Doley, an organizer for the Germantown United Community Development Corp. “How is it possible that today, Germantown High School is up for sheriff sale, and both the high school and Fulton Elementary School sit vacant?”

In fall 2012, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission voted to close 23 schools to save money. Months later, buildings that once welcomed thousands of students were emptied, shuttered, and sold.

Some were revitalized as charter schools. Roberts Vaux High School became Vaux Big Picture; Stephen A. Douglas became Maritime Academy. Some were redeveloped into neighborhood mixed-use spaces like University City, or community and commercial centers like Edward Bok Technical.

Others, like Germantown, weren’t so fortunate….

In September 2013, the Maryland-based Concordia Group began negotiations to purchase Germantown High, as well as nearby Fulton and three other shuttered school buildings: Charles Carroll High School in Port Richmond, and South Philly elementary schools Walter G. Smith and Abigail Vare.

The schools were packaged for quick sale, but the purchase agreement shows that they sold for widely varying amounts: Vare and Carroll for a little less than half their assessed value; Smith for nearly twice its market assessment; and Fulton for one-tenth. Germantown was the lowest-priced of all five schools at $100,000 — a far cry from the value of $11 million listed by the city’s Office of Property Assessment.

Then, another twist. Before the sale could be completed, a group of Point Breeze community members filed a lawsuit in Commonwealth Court opposing the closure of Smith and saying the schools were being sold below value. The deal came to a halt.

In 2017, after an appeal from the School District, the court approved the sale of the five schools. But the Concordia Group no longer seemed so sure. It flipped Smith to Philadelphia developer Ori Feibush, who was building in Point Breeze. Carroll is in development under Philadelphia-based developer High Top, while Vare is still listed as an active project under Concordia

The Department of Licenses and Inspections has tracked 15 violations for vacancy, weeds, and trash at the Germantown High address. And property taxes haven’t been paid since the 2017 purchase. The high school is listed as on four lots, according to city records; combined, that’s $595,306.93 in overdue taxes. Fulton, just across the street, is on two lots and has racked up just under $250,000 in back taxes.

“It definitely affected the community,” said State Rep. Stephen Kinsey, a Democrat who represents the neighborhood and graduated from Germantown High. “Two or three businesses closed as a direct result of the lack of traffic. There was more illegal activity around the school, more police on the driveway.… To have a vacant building of that magnitude for six years, that changes the whole neighborhood….”

In March, Philadelphia-based real estate broker MSC Retail released a brochure that disclosed plans to replace the Germantown High school building with two large stores and 68 parking spots. Residents were shocked and outraged. Germantown United CDC and activist interfaith group POWER called an emergency community meeting.

City Councilwoman Cindy Bass, who represents the neighborhood, said at the meeting that she planned to arrange a dialogue between the community and the company planning to develop Germantown High School, High Top. But a spokesperson for High Top says it’s not currently involved with the project. Meanwhile, MSC Retail has removed the brochure from its website. A spokesperson for MSC declined to comment on the property but said the company had no current plans for redevelopment….

According to the Sheriff’s Office, if a property owner fails to pay utility bills, school taxes, or city taxes, the property may be auctioned at a tax delinquency sale so the city can collect what it’s owed. The opening bid on Germantown High next month is listed as $1,500. 

So a city-owned property once assessed as worth $11 million has been flipped from developer to developer and is now on the auction block for $1,500.

There is something unspeakably sad about the demise of a historic building that once rang with chatter and laughter and student orations and plays and life.