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Editorial: Rundown City Schools

Awaiting inevitable harm

Philadelphia's public schools are a mess - literally. Buildings are in disgraceful, deplorable disrepair, with conditions unfit and unsafe for students and teachers.

Dirty bathrooms and clogged sinks. Broken and missing floor tiles. Broken windows. Exposed wiring. Overused surge protectors. Missing or uncharged fire extinguishers. A missing radiator cover. A blocked


locked emergency exit. These are some of the problems listed in a report released Wednesday by city Controller Alan Butkovitz. He uncovered the problems during visits to 19 schools, but believes the disrepair is representative of what can be found in all 300 district school buildings.

Sadly, Butkovitz pointed out similar problems in a report two years ago. Yet, little has been done to repair what's broken. Butkovitz has now identified $15 million in "hazardous" conditions that need to be fixed immediately.

Interim schools CEO Thomas Brady agrees with most of the findings, but says the cash-strapped district doesn't have the money to address the problems. Brady says the district needs to spend $70 million more annually on capital improvements. He estimates that the district would need $4 billion to fix all of the problems at all of the schools.

Admittedly, Philadelphia's schools are old and crumbling. The average city school was constructed at least 70 years ago. But not every problem in a building requires an expensive solution. Beginning with the dirty bathrooms and clogged sinks, maintenance staff must do a better job cleaning up. Fresh plaster and paint on damaged walls would do wonders.

Health and safety issues - like the fire door at Frankford High School found chained shut and blocked with a tower of lockers - should be corrected immediately.

Jim Lewis, the district's vice president for facilities, has offered assurances that the city's schools are safe. Butkovitz's report, however, raises troubling questions about their actual condition.

The report also raises questions about the the city's Licenses and Inspections Department, which Lewis says annually deems district schools in "substantial compliance" of building codes. Photographs provided by Butkovitz tell a different story of buildings with potentially dangerous conditions. For example, at Francis Scott Key Elementary, the sharp points of a fence poke out unsafely. At McDaniel Elementary, missing floor tiles could trip students.

Butkovitz has issued a chilling warning that the district can no longer afford to ignore: "If you take a large enough risk for a long enough time . . . there's going to be a tragedy." Such risks should not be taken when children are involved. They deserve a safe, clean environment where they can learn without worrying about dirty, unsafe surroundings. The district must place a higher priority on repairing hazards in schools.