A tale of incompetence: Report on Ben Franklin/SLA debacle shows Philly schools need a new leader | Opinion
The Office of the Inspector General's recent report shows how the district's attempt at combining schools is a tale of incompetence and disregard for the health and safety of children and adults.
On Aug. 19, the day before the August board of education meeting, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) — an independent office within the School District of Philadelphia — issued its final report on the 2019 relocation of Science Leadership Academy (SLA) to the building occupied by Benjamin Franklin High School at Broad and Spring Garden. It is a tale of incompetence and disregard for the health and safety of children and adults at both schools.
The fact that the report does not identify any of the people involved by name, only position or title, is as clear a signal you can get that no one at any level of the Hite administration is being held accountable. The names of board members are redacted from emails, so it should come as no surprise that the board, after expressing disappointment and possible loss of trust, has given the administration a pass.
The OIG report reveals, in great detail, how the relocation of SLA to Ben Franklin was botched from the beginning. Construction costs increased almost immediately; the initial $10 million price tag ballooned to over $50 million at completion. Concerns raised by parents, staff, and principals of both schools were largely ignored. Parents from both schools predicted that the safety of the Ben Franklin students would be jeopardized if they had to remain in the building during the entire year of construction. District staff, however, “failed, at multiple junctures, to appreciate these missteps, heed concerns about the conditions created at the outset and during the construction, and to plan for a contingency in the event that the project could not be completed on time.”
As parents had feared, Ben Franklin students and staff were forced to endure “an intolerable experience” for the entire 2018-19 school year: “Teachers, students, and staff were left in an environment inundated with noise, frequently soiled with dust and construction debris, and were then asked to teach or learn in that same environment.”
Several children suffered asthma attacks. On one “harrowing” day, four staff members fell ill, two of whom were rushed to hospitals by ambulance. Despite all of this, the co-location was carried out, until SLA parents’ protests forced the closing of both schools, followed by yet another relocation.
The board’s response to the incompetence, the deception, the deliberate endangering of students and staff, and the sustained coverup appears to be little more than a desire to put the whole thing in its rearview mirror. Some expressed their concerns to Superintendent William R. Hite, and some wondered whether they would be able to trust the administration in the future. But members of the public who watched and testified at the August remote meeting listened in vain for one word: accountability.
Board president Joyce Wilkerson told Chalkbeat Philadelphia that the OIG’s findings would be included in Hite’s annual evaluation, “together with some great things that are also happening in the district.” Hite assured the board that the report provides “a teachable moment.” The superintendent of any large school system should already know that it is wrong to put students in harm’s way, then lie about it to the public, the press, and the district’s governing body. But having issued its verbal knuckle-rapping, the board appears to have moved on.
Board member Mallory Fix Lopez complained that the district kept board members “in the dark” when they began to realize the extent of the debacle in fall 2019. Angela McIver called for a “dismantling of the culture” that made the Ben Franklin debacle possible. But neither they nor any other board member demanded justice for the children and adults forced to endure a horrendous situation, or for those seriously injured.
Just before the board passed a “Black Lives Matter at School” resolution at that same meeting, board member Akeem Akbar told the public: “We are committing to do all of the work that Black Lives Matter includes.” That must begin with justice for the children and adults who were injured — physically, mentally, and emotionally — at Benjamin Franklin High School. The board must ask for the resignations of Hite and all of those responsible.
Lisa Haver is a retired Philadelphia teacher and cofounder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools.