Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Old schools, hot buildings: A ‘public health concern’?

A late-summer heat wave has shortened school days in many districts across the region. "This is not just a matter of air conditioning units," one school board member said. "It's about a failing infrastructure."

Officials gathered outside Cassidy Elementary — a West Philadelphia school in such poor shape it is more cost-effective to replace it than to fix everything wrong with it — to talk about building problems raised across the region by a recent heat wave.
Officials gathered outside Cassidy Elementary — a West Philadelphia school in such poor shape it is more cost-effective to replace it than to fix everything wrong with it — to talk about building problems raised across the region by a recent heat wave.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

When Rafi Cave dropped his daughter off at school Friday, it felt like a revelation — it was the first time since classes began Sept. 4 that children at Evans Elementary in Yeadon had a full day's instruction.

"We're a week into school, and she hasn't met her reading teacher yet," Cave, a member of the Yeadon Borough Council, said of his fourth grader, Ryen.

Last week's late-summer heat wave forced schools from Philadelphia and Camden to Tredyffrin/Easttown and Cheltenham to call multiple early dismissals in the nascent school year.

To Gina Curry, a member of the Upper Darby school board, the fact that many school systems were unable to cool their buildings is a symptom of a larger problem.

"This is not just a matter of air-conditioning units," Curry said. "It's about a failing infrastructure. This is a public health concern."

For many districts, the cooling challenge isn't limited to installing units: Wiring old buildings is expensive. And in Pennsylvania, where schools are funded heavily by local property taxes, and state money for school construction has withered, the costs can be prohibitive for poorer districts.

Philadelphia City Councilwoman Helen Gym said at a news conference Friday that children in districts across the state that are unable to pay to properly cool their buildings have been "held hostage" by the heat but also by "the failure of our state and federal government to invest in our school facilities." She and others called on Pennsylvania to restart and fund a dormant reimbursement program for school construction projects, with money set aside not just for new buildings but also for repairs to aging schools.

"Our children had to see their school days shortened, struggling through heat indexes of 100, while children in the wealthiest parts of our state — Lower Merion, Radnor — went to full-day learning," Gym said outside Cassidy Elementary in West Philadelphia, a building in such disrepair it will soon be replaced because it is too expensive to fix.

In Reading, where three of the four middle schools lack air-conditioning, a study determined that putting an HVAC system in just one school would cost $11 million to $24 million, said Superintendent Khalid Mumin.

"When will that ever happen for us?" Mumin said. The district is instead looking at portable air conditioners.

In Philadelphia, where students were dismissed early five times in the last two weeks, district officials say it would cost $145 million to provide air-conditioning for every classroom. For that money, said spokesman Lee Whack, the district could build three new schools, modernize 1,500-plus classrooms, or hire an additional 300 counselors for four years.

The vast majority of district schools have either no central cooling system, or scattered window units.

Competing priorities — including a recent focus on school security — complicate the situation for districts with limited budgets, said Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.

"Should we put the money into air-conditioning or safety? Usually, safety's going to win out on that," he said.

The problem is widespread in urban districts with old buildings, including Baltimore and Columbus, Ohio, said Mary Filardo, executive director of 21st Century School Fund, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates for greater investment in school facilities.

Washington likely would have had to dismiss students early for heat last week also, Filardo said, "had we not spent $4 billion modernizing schools" with local tax revenues. While her group is calling for federal funding to help high-need school districts, improving facilities is "going to mostly require state and local money."

In Pennsylvania, a group of plaintiffs — including the William Penn School District in Delaware County — is suing the state over school funding, alleging the system discriminates against students in lower-wealth communities that cannot keep up with rising costs.

Meanwhile, PlanCon, the state reimbursement program, has been stalled, with no money dedicated for new projects.

Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Philadelphia) and Rep. Leanne Krueger-Braneky (D., Delaware) both blasted the current legislature for its inaction.

"So far, the makeup of the General Assembly has been a boil on the butt of progress," Hughes said.

Many districts in the commonwealth are already carrying high debt — on average, $16,820 per student, the second-highest in the country as of fiscal year 2015, according to an analysis by Filardo.

"It's not like the locals aren't trying to take care of their buildings, but they're old. It's an old state," Filardo said. "Eventually those schools need to be rebuilt."

In Tredyffrin/Easttown, where most school buildings were constructed in the 1960s, just one of eight schools is fully air-conditioned, though all have some air-conditioned spaces. Some buildings in the Chester County district have had five early dismissal days because of heat, with children being rotated in and out of air-conditioned rooms when at school.

Adding air-conditioning to every school has long been a consideration, but given the average age of buildings, the district has plenty of other building needs, too, said Art McDonald, the district's business manager.

Old buildings aren't limited to Pennsylvania: In Camden, where the district cut short the first day of school Thursday due to heat, district facilities average more than 60 years old. Half the buildings were constructed before 1940, according to Katrina McCombs, acting state superintendent, who said in a statement that improving school facilities was "at the top of my priority list."

If Camden students are to receive the same quality of education as peers in other districts, "we have to improve our buildings," said Maita Soukup, the district's spokesperson.

Cave, of Yeadon, whose hometown school system is William Penn, said the heat has underscored the disparities highlighted in the district's lawsuit. Schools a few miles from his daughter's have air-conditioned classrooms and uninterrupted school weeks.

"Our students are already behind the eight ball because of funding," he said. "We could lose half a month of learning… because of the heat, and the kids are still being held to the same standards, taking the same state tests."