Having long been hampered by a large stock of aging and unsafe buildings and not enough money to fix them, Philadelphia School District officials have put more resources into a process to assess the scope of repairs and determine next steps — which could eventually include school closings, consolidations, and other changes to its infrastructure.
The state of district buildings “impacts our ability to provide the high-quality educational environments we want for all students,” said Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. “Some of our schools were built in the 19th century, and we know that these buildings cannot meet the 21st-century learning needs of our students.”
The district last took a comprehensive look at facilities five years ago, estimating then that it had $5 billion in unmet capital needs. Officials on Tuesday debuted a searchable database that details not just the physical conditions of building systems for every school but also information about the “educational suitability” of each building and the current utilization of each school. While some schools are bursting at the seams, others are underused. And the school system has been losing about 4,000 students annually for the last several years.
A quick search of the database shows a complex and sometimes grim picture for a district that lacks the ability to raise its own revenue. For instance, Francis Scott Key Elementary in South Philadelphia, the system’s oldest school, built in 1889, earned a 50 on a 1-to-100 scale for educational suitability, deemed “unsuitable to support the educational/governmental program.” It earned a 71 for utilization, “approaching inefficient use of space.”
The district had previously launched a “Comprehensive School Planning Review” in 2019, budgeting $1.4 million for work that was supposed to finish in 2023 but languished during the pandemic. The school board approved an additional $1.3 million for the new planning process this year, with funds allocated to pay for engineers, architects, demographers, public engagement firms, and others.
Key to the process now is the public’s input, said Vanessa Benton, the district’s deputy chief of planning.
“We really want to encourage the community to come to the table,” Benton said at the news conference. “We are not closed to the idea that the options that we are considering are going to come from the community or the stakeholders.”
Districtwide community meetings are scheduled for this spring; school-based meetings are planned for later in the year. Recommendations are expected to be made public next spring.
Reggie McNeil, the district’s chief operating officer, said a host of options are on the table, including: “consolidation, maybe relocating students to another school, maybe downsizing a school’s infrastructure in order to put more resources into a school. I think those are all options we might ask the community to consider.”
The information is crucial. School board members have said they currently lack an adequate picture of the district’s building priorities when they’re asked to make decisions on spending money on projects from new playgrounds to reopening the pool at Sayre High School.
While the larger strategic process continues, the school board is gearing up to consider revisions to its “rightsizing” policy for closing schools. It will begin discussing the current policy at a meeting scheduled for Thursday.