With the Philadelphia School District and its leadership facing intense heat over the indefinite closure of an asbestos-tainted building and plans to relocate 1,000 students, the school board president said Tuesday that the board backed its superintendent but will take steps to make sure such messes will not happen in the future.
Speaking publicly for the first time since the discovery of damaged asbestos displaced students from Benjamin Franklin High School and Science Leadership Academy, Board President Joyce Wilkerson said she directed board members not to attend two town hall meetings where parents, students, and staff expressed their anger over construction woes to superintendent William R. Hite Jr. because she wanted to send a message.
“We have a superintendent, we support our superintendent,” Wilkerson told the Inquirer Editorial Board on Tuesday. “The superintendent manages the district, and we oversee the superintendent.”
The board has been monitoring the Ben Franklin/SLA situation “very, very closely" and has multiple concerns “that we will be reviewing with Dr. Hite in the coming weeks,” Wilkerson said.
Both Wilkerson and Hite said hundreds of millions of dollars in state budget cuts decimated the school administration several years ago and the system has not fully recovered. As a result, small departments are spread too thin managing enormous workloads.
The district’s capital budget has ballooned since Hite took over as superintendent in 2012. His first capital budget was $26 million, Hite said. Now, it’s $422 million, an increase of more than 1,500%.
At the moment, the school system has 37 construction projects in progress all over the city, from the Ben Franklin/SLA building to a new K-8 school on Ryan Avenue in the Northeast, with a single construction manager overseeing all of them.
“If we have her at Ben Franklin every day, she’s not at Dobbins managing that, she’s not at Solis-Cohen,” Hite said.
“We can’t afford to ignore the central office,” said Wilkerson. “We pay a high price for that, and it’s coming home to roost in a way that doesn’t serve the kids.”
The school system has massive capital needs — it has identified nearly $5 billion in repairs that should be done on its large stock of aging buildings.
The district maps all the known and suspected asbestos in its buildings every six months, and does fuller inventories every three years, as mandated by the federal government. But with the Ben Franklin situation and asbestos on top of people’s minds, Hite said, he reminded principals Tuesday morning that if they see or suspect asbestos in their buildings, they should report it.
He wanted to pledge that if a new report came in, a staffer could be dispatched to inspect the suspicious area within 48 hours, Hite said, but because of staffing levels, he couldn’t promise that. He had to say someone would be out within a week.
“I feel anxious about the capacity, the human capacity, to address these issues,” the superintendent said.
Another issue that’s been laid bare by the Ben Franklin/SLA project is the lack of identified “swing space” — schools that have enough empty space to accommodate large numbers of students displaced from their buildings for any reason, from construction problems to floods or fires.
South Philadelphia and Strawberry Mansion High Schools were at first presented to the Ben Franklin and SLA communities as fallback locations until asbestos abatement and construction on their building is finished in early 2020, but parents pushed back hard on both sites. (A new task force of parents was formed to identify other possible locations for Ben Franklin and SLA, but both schools are still on the table, Hite said.)
Whether SLA or Ben Franklin end up there, Hite said Tuesday, South Philadelphia and Strawberry Mansion have now been designated as “swing space” should any other school need a temporary location. Martin Luther King High is another such spot.
In some cases, staff at those schools have already been directed to move to other classrooms to make space for any school that might move in because of an emergency.
District officials and other task force members were still working Tuesday to identify possible locations and plans have not been finalized, Hite said.
But he reiterated that Ben Franklin students will be back in school by Monday. SLA may take longer to find a new location or locations, but its students have been working remotely via school-issued laptops and are meeting part-time at the School District’s headquarters on North Broad Street.
In the meantime, Hite said, the School District will issue laptops to Ben Franklin students as well.