With asbestos issues unresolved, Philadelphia School District officials said Friday that they will indefinitely close to students the building that houses Benjamin Franklin High School and Science Leadership Academy and seek other locations for students to resume their classes later next week.
Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said classes will be canceled Monday and Tuesday — and all schools have a planned day off Wednesday — but promised that by Thursday, the district will have come up with sites to teach the nearly 1,000 students enrolled at the two schools in the city’s Spring Garden section.
Officials also have planned two town hall meetings on Monday to discuss the issues with Ben Franklin and SLA parents and staff. By the time students return, they will have missed nine days of school due to environmental hazards and construction delays on a project whose price tag is $37 million and rising.
Hite struck a conciliatory tone on Friday as public and private pressure on the district rose.
“It is no secret that we greatly underestimated the work that needed to be done to create a new learning environment for SLA and Ben Franklin, and doing all that major construction during the school day,” Hite said at a hastily arranged news conference. “We’ve had both schools miss considerable instructional time, and we’re deeply sorry and apologetic for that occurrence.”
The superintendent also said the district should have done a better job communicating with staff and parents.
Hite declined to name the locations under consideration, but said officials will take into consideration feedback gathered at the meetings.
“I still have excitement for the project,” Hite said. “However, moving forward, there will be no return to the Ben Franklin/SLA campus until construction is at a point where it is safe for children to return.”
A 2018 Inquirer investigation, “Toxic City: Sick Schools,” detailed how construction jobs performed during school hours put children at risk and have made some Philadelphia students so ill they required hospital attention.
Damaged asbestos has been found in the schools’ unoccupied boiler room and in SLA’s first-floor commons, which was under construction during school hours and triggered complaints from teachers and students about uncontrolled dust from the work site. Construction halted and classes were abruptly canceled late last month after district and union officials flagged damaged asbestos that became exposed when workers removed ceiling tiles during the project.
That damaged asbestos sat exposed for months before it was noticed.
“The district has not controlled this project properly from the beginning,” said Jerry Roseman, environmental science director for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. “They haven’t been able to meet scheduled time frames. They haven’t been able to protect students and staff from hazardous conditions, and then, asbestos was found, and a lot of it, and it was damaged and posing a risk to occupants.”
Undisturbed asbestos poses no threat, but once asbestos becomes damaged, it is dangerous to human health.
Hite’s apology and the news of more missed school comes amid a groundswell of fears and frustration from parents, teachers and students over significant environmental issues — and the way they have been handled by the School District.
Ben Franklin students and teachers lived through 18 months of construction before SLA students arrived and more attention was paid to health and safety issues inside the building.
“We want to know who’s responsible, and who’s getting fired,” said Bob Kringe, a social studies teacher at Ben Franklin. “Who’s going to be paying for our health tests? Who’s going to be paying for us 15 years from now when we have to get chemo?”
Keith Pretlow, a culinary arts teacher at Franklin, is similarly concerned. “This building has never been safe,” Pretlow said. “This is criminal negligence.”
In a letter sent Thursday to Hite and school board members, one SLA parent requested an emergency hearing “to eliminate what has been for many a total lack of transparency about the current circumstances. Communications regarding the state of the building have not been forthright to date, and we need to secure the true facts about its current conditions and your plans to reopen or relocate the students.”
Clariza Murray, another SLA parent, took a tour of the building at Broad and Green Streets this spring and thought then the target of completion by the first day of school was not achievable. Murray took another tour the week school began, when students from both schools ended up missing three days of classes because the building wasn’t ready.
On that tour, she said, she asked about asbestos.
“They assured us, ‘The construction company said there’s no asbestos,’” she said. “They should have told us the truth. Their credibility is gone.”
Friday morning began with a contentious meeting between school staff, PFT representatives, and the district’s construction team. During the meeting, school staff accused district and union officials of hiding information, and expressed a lack of faith in the district to keep them safe. Much of the arguing centered on whether additional asbestos material, which should have been identified previously, remained in the basement where some Franklin students attend vocational classes, according to Roseman and others at the meeting.
Roseman said that he learned only late Friday afternoon that the district had found and planned to abate even more asbestos in the basement.
Asked how long students could be out of the Ben Franklin/SLA building, Hite said it was unclear.
“You never know with active construction,” the superintendent said. “The construction could damage something else.”
The Franklin town hall meeting is scheduled for Monday at 9 a.m. at district headquarters, 440 N. Broad St. The SLA town hall will be held there at 5:30 p.m.