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Controller: Empty school sites are looming ‘catastrophes’

Vacant Philadelphia School District buildings are "catastrophes waiting to happen," City Controller Alan Butkovitz warned Tuesday.

Vacant Philadelphia School District buildings are "catastrophes waiting to happen," City Controller Alan Butkovitz warned Tuesday.

In a newly released report, Butkovitz's staff studied eight unoccupied district schools - some of which have stood abandoned for years - and found that district officials let the schools deteriorate into dangerous eyesores.

"Everybody can see the disaster coming down the pike, and yet people are paralyzed by the cost of it," Butkovitz said at a news conference. "They balance that against the idea that maybe they'll just be lucky and nothing will happen on their watch."

Of the schools surveyed by investigators and a licensed engineer, two are "drug havens" with "extremely unsanitary conditions," including used syringes, needle caps, human waste, and piles of garbage. Drug paraphernalia was found at the Rudolph Walton School in the city's Nicetown section and the Simon Muhr School in North Philadelphia.

Other schools have become "locations for crime" with robbery, theft, drug possession, and assault occurring on site. Of particular concern are the Beeber Wynnefield Alternative Program, Muhr, and the old Roberto Clemente Middle School in Hunting Park, the report found.

There were serious structural problems at three schools, including exposed rebar, broken and falling cement, and cracks along brick walls.

Clemente is so dangerous that it should be demolished immediately, Butkovitz recommended.

At one school - Ada Lewis Middle School in East Germantown - investigators saw a man sitting on a couch pushed up against an exterior wall.

"It appears that either he - or someone else - was actually living there," said Butkovitz, a frequent critic of the district. "There were signs that a fire had been started."

It would cost about $5 million to demolish all the buildings, Butkovitz estimated.

The district now has all eight listed for sale.

This is not Butkovitz's first such warning. He earlier called attention to potential dangers at the old Edison High building, which fire destroyed in August.

In the coming years, the district will have more vacant buildings to deal with, as the School Reform Commission plans to decide on school closings in the coming months. Nine schools have been recommended for closure.

Thousands of buildings around the city are vacant, but Butkovitz said these schools deserve special attention because of their size and their former role as community hubs.

A district spokesman said he welcomed the controller's report but noted that the district has sold seven district buildings in the last six years, bringing in $26.3 million.

Four additional vacant properties - the old Willard Elementary, the Maisland Building, the Monroe Building, and the old West Philadelphia High - are to be listed after the School Reform Commission approves them for sale.

But, spokesman Fernando Gallard said, the district is in the midst of a fiscal crisis, and money used to demolish buildings would take away resources from schools.

"Demolition is a last resort," Gallard said. "It's the last thing we want to do, given the financial situation that the district has been facing."

Still, "we are aware of how these properties are taxing their neighbors," Gallard said. "We are doing our best to maintain them. We will look at the recommendations and see what we can do. But it's a challenge."