Many Philadelphia schools urgently need repairs, and local funds alone can’t pay for the billions of dollars needed to bring buildings up to 21st-century standards. Help must come from Washington, officials said Friday.
“We must do something about these facilities,” said U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.), standing on the rooftop of Academy at Palumbo, a South Philadelphia magnet school.
Estimates have put Philadelphia’s capital needs at nearly $5 billion, and though the district has managed to invest significant dollars into buildings in the past few years — including the nearly $400 million for capital projects the school board authorized borrowing Thursday — those needs far outstrip its available resources.
Evans and Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. gathered at a news conference Friday to tout a federal tax credit the congressman is pushing for inclusion in the $3.5 trillion federal infrastructure bill now being debated in Washington. Evans wants districts across the U.S. to be able to use the tax credit to repair historic buildings such as Palumbo, which is 91 years old.
After years of leaks and other issues, Palumbo’s roof and many classrooms flooded and a ceiling partially collapsed in 2018. Three years later, the school finally has a new roof, complete with jaw-dropping views, basketball hoops, and picnic tables.
Citywide, other schools are plagued with needed repairs. At the U School, a small district high school in North Philadelphia, a classroom ceiling collapsed Thursday after years of leaks and crumbling plaster, a staffer there said in an interview.
It’s a challenge not unique to Philadelphia, the superintendent said.
“Congressman Evans will tell you — it’s a national problem,” said Hite.
The average Philadelphia school is 75 years old.
“These students deserve to be in great facilities where we can focus on their learning instead of focusing on crumbling walls,” said Kiana Thompson, Palumbo’s principal.
Thompson is thrilled with the new roof, she said, and she loves the character of the building at 11th and Catharine Streets, but it still needs work, mostly paint and plastering.
If Evans’ proposal passes, work performed at buildings such as Palumbo’s, which was constructed in 1930, would qualify for federal money.
It’s not clear if the schools provision of the infrastructure bill will pass, but Evans said it’s important to keep the pressure on.
“I want to make sure schools are on the table,” said Evans, adding that he believed the district was doing its best to cope with enormous facilities needs with the resources it has.
Critics of the district, including the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, acknowledge the district’s limited resources and a lack of current federal help, but say the school system is mismanaging facilities issues.
Jerry Jordan, PFT president, said in a statement that he supports federal infrastructure legislation but that the district has let systems “deteriorate, leaving students and staff in perilous conditions day in and day out.”
Jordan said he found it “unconscionable, and in fact, unconstitutional that we fail our students in such a profound way each and every single day. And let me be very clear: These are conditions that would never, ever be tolerated in wealthier, whiter school districts.”
Freda Anderson said she has been sounding the alarm about conditions inside her third-floor classroom at the U School for six years. There’s frequent water damage that causes bubbling plaster and a fine dust that bothers people with asthma. Crews come out from time to time to repair the plaster, but not the underlying condition.
“They don’t fix what’s causing the leak,” said Anderson. “It gets worse and worse and worse, and it started looking like it was going to fall.”
Anderson and school staff warned officials that the problem looked serious this school year, but nothing was done, she said. On Thursday, Anderson was absent and her students out of the classroom when the collapse apparently occurred. No one noticed until Anderson returned to the classroom Friday.
But for a fluke absence, the room would have been occupied Thursday.
“The classrooms are overcrowded, we’re understaffed, and the kids are sitting on top of each other. There would have been no way for me to keep out of the fire line of the leak or the collapse,” said Anderson, who taught her classes in the counselor’s office Friday.
According to data submitted to the teachers’ union, Anderson’s classroom isn’t alone. At the U School, housed inside the old Ferguson Elementary on North Seventh Street, multiple classrooms have issues ranging from water damage and active leaks to rodent problems and flaking paint.
In some cases, the problems were reported years ago — and labeled “urgent” by the PFT, union documents show, meaning they asked the district for a response within a few days — and still have not been addressed.
The district said it was unaware of the ceiling collapse in Anderson’s classroom. Anderson said she filed paperwork Friday, but because of staff shortages, there was no one to notify the central office of the problem.
Monica Lewis, a spokesperson for the school system, said district records showed “no unaddressed issues” at the U School but that now that officials knew about the ceiling collapse, facilities staff would be at the school over the weekend.
“As soon as we receive [notification of facilities issues], we look into them to see how we can best address them,” Lewis said.