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Ben Franklin/SLA communities prepare for showdown over building, asbestos issues

A coalition of representatives from both schools blasted the district as committing “gross negligence” during the construction project to co-locate the schools.

A sign on a 6th floor doorway warns of a construction zone at the under construction Benjamin Franklin HS, and Science Leadership Academy on N. Broad St. in Phila., Pa. on September 5, 2019.
A sign on a 6th floor doorway warns of a construction zone at the under construction Benjamin Franklin HS, and Science Leadership Academy on N. Broad St. in Phila., Pa. on September 5, 2019.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Accusing the Philadelphia School District of demonstrating an “utter disregard for the needs of our students,” a group of parents, teachers and supporters of Benjamin Franklin High School and the Science Leadership Academy are fighting back as the two schools prepare to relocate amid concerns over asbestos in their building.

» READ MORE: Read more: At town hall, Superintendent Hite says asbestos-tainted building won't open until January

In a blistering letter to Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. sent Sunday, a coalition made up of representatives from both schools blasted the district as committing “gross negligence” during the $37 million construction project to co-locate the schools. The project has been marred by delays, missed days of school, health concerns for students and teachers, and, most recently, the discovery of damaged asbestos.

Late Friday, Hite said the schools’ building at North Broad and Green Streets would be closed to students indefinitely while asbestos abatement and construction continue. Nonetheless, Hite said, both schools would re-open their programs on Thursday at other locations.

District leaders will meet with those affected by the construction problems in meetings scheduled for Monday — 9 a.m. for Ben Franklin, 5:30 p.m. for SLA. The meetings are not open to the public or to the media.

The coalition said in its letter that families had initially trusted the district.

“Having seen the ineptitude of the progress and the impact on our children, YOUR students, we are no longer willing to do so,” they said.

The Ben Franklin and SLA communities made a number of demands, including that the district appoint an independent committee to survey potential relocation sites, that any alternate sites “are free from environmental hazards,” and that the district commit to a legally binding timeline for relocation and reopening. They also want the district’s administration building at 440 N. Broad, just down the street from their campus, to be open to students while a relocation plan is formed.

The district had no immediate response.

Late Sunday night, a coalition including lawmakers and teachers’ union officials also railed against the district, castigating it for sins “from a complete lack of transparency to botched communications efforts, and quite frankly untruths being shared with the public to assure them that an unsafe building is safe."

The group took the district to task even for its scheduling of the public meetings — with critics noting that the meeting for the school with a higher concentration of poor students and students of color was set for a time when most people are at work, the meeting for the school with fewer students living in poverty and more white students at a time after most people have finished work.

“The district’s scheduling of these meetings at times that appear to reinforce a racially biased perception of the Ben Franklin community is troubling,” the ‘Fund our Facilities’ coalition wrote. “It is incumbent upon the district to schedule meetings that reflect the equity for which we must strive and insist upon in every school."

Members of the Ben Franklin and SLA communities also were troubled Sunday by a Facebook post by Joseph McColgan, the president of Neumann-Goretti High School in South Philadelphia, telling parents, he would be “more than happy to assist you in placing your students in a learning environment that is cleaner, safer, equipped with better instructional leaders and most important to the taxpayers of Philadelphia, less expensive.”

McColgan’s wife is Maria McColgan, a member of the Philadelphia school board.

An online petition started by Zoe Rooney, a Philadelphia teacher and parent, asked Mayor Jim Kenney to remove Maria McColgan from the school board, saying her husband’s actions represent a conflict of interest that violates school board policy.

Maria McColgan, the petition said, “can no longer be counted upon to reliably serve the interests of the students, families, and teachers of Philadelphia, and we do not have confidence in her leadership, committee work, or Board votes as a result.”

The petition had more than 550 signatures as of Sunday night.

Sarah Peterson, a spokesperson for the Kenney administration, said that the matter was still under review, but that Joseph McColgan’s post did not reflect Maria McColgan’s or the school boards’ opinions.

But, Peterson said, the mayor’s office did “share the public’s reaction to the post – it was disgraceful to use a School District facility matter as a marketing tool as he did.”

The Kenney administration believes McColgan “has been an excellent board member for more than a year,” Peterson said, and Kenney believes she should be “judged on her record, not on a poorly judged social media post by her spouse.”

In a statement, Maria McColgan said that her husband’s post "was written without my knowledge or input and does not reflect my opinions. I remain focused on supporting a safe transition for these two school communities as renovations continue on their new facility.”

Efforts to reach Joseph McColgan were unsuccessful, but once controversy started brewing, he appended a comment to his post, saying that “I find it comical that a post meant to push forward Catholic education has been misconstrued as a hatred toward educators."