UNIVERSITY CITY High School will stop accepting ninth-graders in the fall to begin a gradual phaseout that will empty the school by 2010, the
The problem is that a multimillion-dollar renovation project can't be started without disturbing cancer-causing asbestos inside the building.
The school was supposed to undergo major renovations as part of the district's $1.5 billion, five-year building plan announced in December 2002.
But concerns about asbestos have convinced district officials to phase out the school before it undergoes an 18-month renovation, said Patrick Henwood, the district's senior vice president for capital programs.
"The amount budgeted for the project is not enough money to do what needs to be done in that building," Henwood told the Daily News in an exclusive interview.
"Our plan is to abate that building when it becomes feasible," he said. "We're going to completely renovate it instead of [spending] the original $15 million or $10 million we had allocated for it. We'll probably wind up spending close to $40 million to renovate it."
Asbestos is a mineral fiber used for decades in numerous building-construction materials for insulation and as a fire retardant.
It's the first time since Martin Luther King High was closed from 1984 to 1986 that the district has had to close an entire school to rid it of asbestos.
The asbestos at University City is not harmful to people because it is not airborne, but is contained in ceiling fireproofing material, said Henwood, who estimated the removal project won't begin until 2010 after the final senior class graduates from the school at 36th and Filbert streets. University City is the only school that will be shut down among the dozens that are part of a $1.5 billion building boom.
Henwood said the asbestos could be contained safely during the work at the other schools, but that is not the case at University City High.
"It's a matter of the major renovation that we are going to do . . . is going to affect the existing fireproofing," he said.
Closing the school was not part of the original renovation plan. The school's staff and 1,505 students have not yet been notified, and no community meetings have been held or scheduled to notify the public.
Henwood said those required community-outreach meetings will be held.
When contacted by the Daily News, University City High teachers and former faculty members expressed concerns about the safety of the building.
In addition to worries about the asbestos, the sprawling building, built in 1972, is beset by environmental problems including leaky ceilings and classroom temperatures above 80 degrees. leading to staff and students frequently feeling ill, they said.
"If they know asbestos is in here and we can die from it, what the hell are we doing in the building?" fumed Barbara Wilf Rose, a math teacher at the school for three years.
"If this was in a suburban area this would not have been allowed. It's horrendous that they would allow this in the city, endangering our people's lives," added Rose, who said that in one classroom a powdery substance was seen floating in the air.
"Clearly there is asbestos in the building and there are numerous leaks that start on the roof and go through every floor. The concern is the leaks could cause what they thought was contained to break up," said Jeff Rosenberg, the school's co-director of athletics, who also teaches health and physical education.
"How can they give us 100 percent assurance with periodic tests when we have leaks that are running through the school?" asked Rosenberg, who has worked at the school since 1995.
For years teachers have complained of sinus headaches and allergies they did not have before working in the building, Rosenberg said. He has endured lingering chest colds, he said.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety & Health Administration, those who work with asbestos have increased chances of getting two principal types of cancer: cancer of the lung tissue itself and mesothelioma, a cancer of the thin membrane that surrounds the lung and other internal organs.
These diseases do not develop immediately following exposure to asbestos, but appear only after a number of years, according to the government.
In addition, long-term exposure to asbestos can lead to abdominal cancers and fatal lung scarring, research has found.
Gregory Hall, a school police officer who worked at University City for 12 years before being reassigned two years ago, wonders if his health problems are a result of working in the building.
Nine years ago he was diagnosed with Graves' disease, an immune-system disorder that causes the thyroid gland to enlarge. Two years ago his tonsils were removed.
"The doctors could not tell me how I got the disease, people just get it. I was always healthy. So when I learned how bad the asbestos problem was, I thought maybe that had something to do with my Graves' disease," said Hall, 39, who now works at another school.
"I'm betting that there was a lot of asbestos in the basement," where he often worked, he said.
Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said the union did not know about the district's plans for University City.
"We will have our hygienist go and check to make sure the air quality is safe and to meet with the district and monitor their plan for the removal of the asbestos," he said.
"We'll do everything to make sure the air quality is safe for the staff and the kids. It's not something we take lightly," he added.
The district insisted that the school is safe to remain open during the three-year phaseout. The school district's Office of Environmental Management and Services and the teachers union last year conducted a series of 700 air-quality tests confirming the school's air safety, spokeswoman Felecia Ward said.
In addition, all district schools are part of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act, which requires six-month and three-year building inspections, Ward said.
"The idea of closing the school is kind of sad. You are a part of a community with established relationships," Rosenberg said. "But overall it truly has to be done because the place has to be fixed."*