Is the Gospel of Grace School one with the Fox Chase United Methodist Church, or are they two separate entities?
That seems to be the key question in a months-long disagreement, a tempest in a teapot, involving the 118-year-old church, the 30-student secondary school it recently opened and at least a handful of neighbors who don’t like the new activity in their midst.
When the Fox Chase Homeowners Association holds its bi-monthly meeting tonight at the American Legion Post 366 hall at 7976 Oxford Ave., the Gospel of Grace School is expected to be a topic of discussion — as it has been for the last two homeowners association meetings in September and November.
Some neighbors have routinely complained that the new school has introduced nuisance issues and potential public safety problems to the area surrounding Fox Chase United, at Loney and Fillmore streets. But their lingering questions also delve into the realms of property rights and zoning.
How did the school get there? Who approved it? How big might it get? How long will it be there? And why weren’t they consulted before Fox Chase United opened its doors to students?
In fact, the city is still sorting out the legality of it all.
A spokeswoman for Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspection told the Northeast Times via email that the city agency received a complaint about the site and twice deployed inspectors.
Inspectors did not cite the church for violating city codes, believing that the church was within its rights to open a school and that the facility meets all fire code and safety requirements. Generally, any church is allowed to open a school as an “accessory use” on its property providing the school meets two criteria.
Firstly, the church must be “an operator of the school (i.e., the school is not leased to an outside operator),” according to the L&I spokeswoman, Rebecca Swanson. Secondly, the size of the school may not exceed the size of the church.
If both criteria are satisfied, the church is not required to obtain special permits from the city or to notify the city, the neighbors or local authorities.
According to Swanson, the inspectors inquired about the operator of the school “and were informed that the pastor of the church was the principal of the school.” However, L&I continues to investigate “whether the pastor serves as the principal or operator of the school,” Swanson wrote.
Whether Fox Chase United actually operates the school remains a matter of debate. The Rev. Bonnie Karen Mullen-Holtz has been pastor of the church for about two years. Pastor Charles M. Kelley is the school principal. According to Kelley, Fox Chase United was not in the picture for the 1997 founding of Gospel of Grace School. The school is non-denominational Christian with a curriculum based on standards established by Bob Jones University, a Christian liberal arts institution in South Carolina. Gospel of Grace operated at the Bethany Baptist Church at 460 Rhawn St. for many years before learning of available space at the former Oxford Circle Jewish Community Center, 1001 Unruh Ave. The school spent three years on Unruh and grew to about 180 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. But officials decided to move again in 2010 due to problems with the facility, Kelley said.
At the time, Fox Chase United was interested in making use of the former Cheltenham United Methodist Church that it had acquired through a merger of congregations. Gospel of Grace downsized enrollment and began leasing the Montgomery County site, at 315 Central Ave., with the intention of purchasing it.
Today, Gospel of Grace has 147 students, about 120 of whom study at the former Cheltenham United. Township officials there have capped enrollment at 130, Kelley said. The school serves students in kindergarten through sixth grade there, with the older students based in Fox Chase.
Neighbors in Fox Chase have numerous complaints. Five area residents met with the Times on Dec. 12 to itemize their issues. Generally, they claim the school is responsible for increased noise, litter and parking congestion in the area. Kelley said that most of the students take public transportation to school, while one arrives in a yellow “mini-bus” and three drive to school. Neighbors claim they have seen nine school-related vehicles parked on the street.
In addition, one neighbor says she found a student in her garden changing his shirt one day, while another neighbor claims that a tardy student parked in her driveway. Sometimes, neighbors said, vehicles will double park outside the school to drop off or pick up students.
Kelley said he has conveyed these concerns to the school and asked that students be considerate of neighbors. The commander of the local police district, Capt. Frank Palumbo, told the Times that he plans to meet with church and school officials to resolve any problems occurring outside the grounds.
Gospel of Grace has registered both the Fox Chase and Cheltenham locations with the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The principal seeks to achieve a total enrollment of about 155 for the two sites moving forward.
Mullen-Holtz, the church pastor, sits on the school’s board, while Kelley sits on the church’s board. Fox Chase United and Gospel of Grace have conducted at least two combined services.
“We don’t want it bigger. We want to give the highest quality education,” Kelley said. “Our goal is not to have a very, very large school.” ••