From the condo building collapse in Surfside, Fla., to the melting streetcar cables in Portland, Ore., to the collapse of the Texas power grid, the catastrophic state of America’s infrastructure has never been more apparent. These tragedies make national headlines, but we don’t need to look that far to find these dangers. Philadelphia is confronting its own catastrophic infrastructure crisis: public school buildings.
This crisis has dire consequences: a maintenance worker’s death from a faulty boiler explosion; a student’s lead poisoning; a career educator’s forced retirement because of her mesothelioma diagnosis after working in schools with exposed asbestos. Philadelphia’s schools are toxic and getting worse without proper maintenance and investment during the pandemic.
The School District of Philadelphia’s (SDP) past approach to infrastructure mismanagement means that its response does not match the severity of its chronic facilities’ issues. State funding cuts eliminated construction reimbursements, and Pennsylvania is one of few states that lacks guidance for educational facilities. District layoffs of maintenance and custodial staff have severed critical connections bridging systemic facilities condition data to the lived experiences of those working and learning in that facility. The district maintains a stubborn resistance to engage the full range of stakeholders into planning and decision-making processes, creating costly outcomes like the Benjamin Franklin/Science Leadership Academy shutdown. These costs are borne by those inside and outside the facility, suggesting that we need a broader coalition of stakeholders involved, with governance, funding, and accountability beyond city and district leadership.
As scholars who study education policy, urban planning, and community engagement, we know from years of research in Philadelphia and across the country that the failure to plan and structure inclusive processes at the outset exacerbates chronic problems. The results of reactionary policies are decisions that are misinformed, poorly scoped, and inadequate, and lead to catastrophic infrastructure events, such as the collapse of classroom ceilings and flooding at the Academy at Palumbo.
Our infrastructure management approach must stop reacting to acute catastrophes with piecemeal solutions and instead plan carefully for these crises. Some might argue that amid such urgent problems, broad stakeholder participation wastes time and does not improve outcomes. But we have to break this thinking and acknowledge that we can’t afford to not plan or engage.
There are three critical actions for SDP and other leaders to make this shift:
Increase transparency about current building conditions. Building on calls from the Philly Healthy Schools Initiative, SDP should release existing data on school conditions on its website. Right now, parents and other interested parties must submit Right-to-Know requests, go to district offices to look at PDF files, and cannot share these data with others. SDP should be required to integrate their maintenance system with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ (PFT) Healthy Schools Tracker App, which allows students, teachers, and staff to log building conditions and concerns in real time. To date, the app has logged 3,000 reports from 185 schools. But SDP has failed to develop effective ways to use this data from those experiencing these horrific school conditions to maintain and improve facilities.
Center daily experiences of building conditions in all assessments and plans for school facilities. Local expertise is critical to envision how to prioritize, remediate, and rehabilitate schools. Building on the knowledge of students, parents, and educators, SDP and other leaders can facilitate new cross-sector collaborations and public engagement efforts. City, state, and federal resources need to work with these immediate stakeholders under a new governance model that takes seriously the perspectives of those who know best what it means to be inside these buildings daily.
Mobilize to close the enormous school facilities funding inequities and deficits. SDP faces funding shortfalls that are not of its own making, and so can’t be solely responsible for fixing the problems. But SDP can lead. It can join advocates to push for the state to fund grant programs that reimburse school districts for environmental hazard remediation and calculate local facilities maintenance contributions relative to district wealth for more sustainable and equitable capital and operating budgets. At the federal level, the Biden administration and Congress left public school facilities out of the bipartisan infrastructure package. But with an estimated 10-year, $1 trillion in new deficiencies, everyone needs to mobilize to ensure more facilities’ funding is included in the reconciliation package. SDP, PFT, city leaders, and community stakeholders should be collaboratively advocating and planning for this influx of dollars.
We must stop making reactionary decisions to placate immediate pressures and push for a sustainable process that centers the health, safety, and well-being of students, parents, and educators, and their surrounding communities. We call on SDP leadership, Mayor Jim Kenney, City Council, state legislators, and Gov. Tom Wolf to be proactive in addressing this crisis. Or else the infrastructure provided by our public schools to the city will continue to fail.
Akira Drake Rodriguez is an assistant professor of city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania Weitzman School of Design. Ariel H. Bierbaum is an assistant professor of urban studies and planning at the University of Maryland School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation.