The Philadelphia School District ignored warning signs, rushed crucial work, wasted money, and endangered students and staff on a disastrous $50 million construction project aimed at co-locating Benjamin Franklin High School and Science Leadership Academy, the district’s inspector general has found.
There were “critical missteps” in the planning, design, and construction stages of the project that resulted in significant environmental and health concerns and ultimately the displacement of nearly 1,000 students, the inspector general said in a report issued Wednesday. The findings echo an Inquirer investigation of the project.
The 124-page report lays out in blistering detail layers of missteps that doomed the project, swelled its cost to five times the original budget, and landed staff and students in the hospital.
But the mistakes should have been no surprise to district higher-ups, it said. Teachers, principals, district staff, and contractors voiced concerns throughout the project.
While officials insisted that the complicated and environmentally sensitive project be completed on an impossible timeline, special education students at Ben Franklin were unnerved by the unrelenting sound of sledgehammers and the rapid-fire sound of drilling. School staff said they had headaches and complained of a “gnawing in your head.” The noise persisted unabated, sometimes with construction workers blaring music over the din of their power tools as students took critical exams.
Students and staff talked about “clouds” of “concrete dust” so thick they could taste it. One staffer described a “meteor shower” of debris coming from the classroom ceiling. Others likened conditions to being in a “war area” or a building fire.
In one month alone — March 2019 — four Ben Franklin staffers became severely sick. And by fall of 2019, as the construction charged ahead, more students and staff at Ben Franklin and at Science Leadership Academy grew ill. Students suffered asthma flareups, burning eyes and throats, and in one case, a persistent cough that caused “several hours of vomiting.”
“Nevertheless, the warnings went largely unheard or unappreciated,” the report found.
Joyce Wilkerson, the school board president, on Wednesday called the issues exposed in the report “deeply problematic.” The board had called for the probe.
On asbestos, the report mirrors findings detailed by The Inquirer in October 2019 highlighting how the district’s environmental staff and outside firms failed to flag asbestos material inside the building prior to construction work. As a result, workers inadvertently disturbed asbestos and spread the carcinogen while students and staff were in the building.
Reading through the report, Ben Franklin parent Gil Gonzalez felt his anger rising.
”What’s upsetting is that people knew, and they allowed our kids to get exposed to asbestos and these bad conditions — they knew,” said Gonzalez, whose son is about to start his sophomore year at the school. “Do I believe that anything is going to change. No. Everything is mismanaged.”
Issues began when the School Reform Commission, the district’s former governing body, ordered officials to terminate the Center City lease of SLA, one of the district’s flagship magnet schools, in 2017. The rent on the school’s Arch Street building was expensive, and officials wanted SLA into underused space inside a Philadelphia school as soon as possible.
As a result, the bulk of the project on Ben Franklin’s North Broad Street campus happened while students and staff were inside the building, exposing them to dust, asbestos, and generally “deplorable conditions” that persisted until public outcry forced the district to remove students from the building shortly after the 2019-20 school year began.
But while SLA students were inside the building under construction for weeks, Benjamin Franklin students endured the conditions for more than a year.
At one point, the district’s construction manager sent an urgent reminder to her staff that contractors must prevent dust, debris, and odors while working in occupied areas of the school and work should halt during air sampling to check for asbestos contamination.
“I continually field questions daily in an attempt to defend the work we do,” she wrote. “I will not continue to tolerate actions from the construction unit that feeds into this negative pressure.”
She added: “If you are unaware of the negative attention that we have been receiving, please search ‘Toxic Schools’ on philly.com. Each of you should be very aware of this information.”
It became quickly apparent that the district had no backup plan in place, the report said, and that it moved forward despite deep concerns from the people on the ground and failed to hold contractors accountable despite “an intolerable amount of dust and debris in the building.”
For instance, in March 2019, demolition work on the first floor created a “big dust storm,” and contractors faced no consequences, even after two Ben Franklin staff members were taken to the hospital in ambulances. Asked by an investigator why no violation notices were issued to any contractor, the district’s construction manager acknowledged that it “should have been,” according to the report.
The district has struggled to retain employees in its operations and environmental departments as it grapples with widespread infrastructure and environmental issues, which have echoed in projects around the district.
If the district does not shift to better valuing and retaining employees in these departments, it “will have catastrophic long-term consequences,” the inspector general said, saying the district’s “consultant-based patchwork” may be financially advantageous but not sustainable.
Wilkerson who leads the school board, the successor to the SRC, said the board “deeply regrets” the fallout from this project, particularly the experience of the Ben Franklin students.
“Please know the board is committed to learning from this experience,” Wilkerson said at a news conference.
Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. also expressed regret about the way the project was handled. He said he knows the public is wary given the school system’s past performance.
“We’re going to have to prove to individuals that we can do better with this work and build trust,” Hite said.
Hite said this was a “teachable moment,” adding that the district has already put in place protocols to prevent any future catastrophes — beefing up the district’s environmental staff and adding more asbestos abatement firms to its roster, hiring an outside construction manager, making sure standards for indoor quality are monitored and met, and having a backup plan for jobs that go awry, including having dedicated “swing spaces” to relocate children so learning is not interrupted.
That the project was rife with errors did not surprise Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
He heard about issues on the project from his staff and his members, then saw a construction zone when he toured the school last summer. And though district leadership said the Ben Franklin/SLA mess will improve their practice going forward, Jordan and others are skeptical, a skepticism that is likely to spill over into the coming school year as the district prepares to bring students back to buildings at some point.
”This is a pattern,” said Jordan. “People don’t believe the buildings are safe. This doesn’t inspire confidence.”
Robin Roberts, a member of Parents United for Public Education, said she was “seething” after digesting the report, angry at both the financial and human cost of the district’s missteps. Her group had been part of a coalition that raised issues about environmental issues at Ben Franklin and elsewhere, even meeting with district officials about the matter.
“We told them, ‘There’s oversight needed, and it’s not there,‘” said Roberts. “What we got is, ‘We have it under control.‘”
Keith Pretlow, Ben Franklin’s culinary teacher, said the report was hard to read at times, and laments the fact that his students will never get back the year-plus they spent in hazardous conditions. But he said he accepts leaders’ apologies and hopes they do better.
“They have to listen to students, teachers, people in the building, not just people at” the district’s headquarters. “I hope they learned something very valuable.”