Eliza B. Kirkbride school in South Philly is due for a $12 million overhaul to replace HVAC system and other improvements. The project is in the design phase. (Nathan Morris for Billy Penn)

💡 Get Philly smart 💡
with BP’s free daily newsletter

Read the news of the day in less than 10 minutes — not that we’re counting.

After a spate of asbestos-related closures, Philadelphia lawmakers are demanding school officials produce a prioritized list of construction priorities or risk having their city funding withheld. 

The School District of Philadelphia, however, has placed its facilities planning process on hold — despite having access to a cache of funding that will expire if work isn’t started soon.

Of the $1.1 billion received in the last round of COVID relief funding, the school district has allocated $325 million to facilities improvements. But the grant funds expire in 2024, so projects must break ground soon to qualify. 

The district’s Facilities Planning Process was placed on pause in November, with Superintendent Tony Watlington saying he wants to concentrate first on finishing the district’s academic plan. 

Walette Carter, who served on the superintendent’s transition team and is president of advocacy group Philadelphia Home and School Council, does not expect to hear any facilities updates before the new academic plan is presented in May.

“As of right now, there is no direction,” Carter told Billy Penn. The Science and Leadership Academy at Beeber in West Philadelphia, which Carter’s oldest grandson attends, spent nearly four years planning bathroom renovations, she said — and then newly installed equipment started falling.  

“We’ve got sinks coming down now that are coming off the wall,” Carter said in January. 

The recent asbestos closures added urgency to the issue, but City Council has previously pressed the district to come up with a strategy to address facilities issues, said Councilmember Isaiah Thomas, who chairs Council’s education committee.

“How are we going to go to Harrisburg and ask for hundreds of millions of dollars without a plan on what we’re going to spend the money on?” Thomas said. (Philly’s school district is the only one in Pa. that cannot raise its own funds; it must rely on state and city contributions.) “Are we building new schools, are we repairing old buildings? What’s the actual plan?” 

He described the way the district operates now as reactionary. After Building 21 closed in early March due to damaged asbestos, Thomas said, sending students to take classes at Strawberry Mansion High School cost thousands of dollars — only to have them switched to virtual learning after most students didn’t show up. 

“Every time something happens within a facility, we’re going to look up and we’re going to squander millions of dollars because we are reacting instead of moving in coordination with an actual plan,” Thomas said. 

Thomas wants a complete list of construction priorities before voting on the city’s budget to maximize efficiency. Mayor Jim Kenney gave City Council his budget proposal on March 2 and budget hearings are scheduled from the end of March to the start of May. 

‘If you yell louder, that’s when your problem gets fixed’

Without a simple way to know what projects are being prioritized, advocates say Philadelphia school communities feel forced to compete with one another. 

“It’s very, very challenging that if you yell louder, then that’s when your problem gets fixed,” said Laurie Mazer, who works with advocacy group Parents United for Public Education

Mazer has two children at Fanny Jackson Coppin School in Passyunk Square. She said the school waited years to fix the building’s leaky roof.

A 2017 study identified 12,000 incomplete projects and $4.5 billion in deferred maintenance costs across the district. In March 2022, a few months before Watlington’s tenure as superintendent began, the district launched its Facilities Planning Process.

Described as an effort to gather community input on a master plan to improve building conditions, the process started with publication of an informational webpage featuring an interactive map. The district hired three firms to assist with community engagement: WXY Studio, Public Engagement Associates, and Skai Blue Media, and officials hosted virtual information sessions in May 2022 (a recording can be viewed here). In-person meetings never happened. 

The Zoom sessions weren’t very helpful, according to Mazer. “The longer you’re in it, the more you’re like: I’ve seen this movie before,” she said. “Oh, you have a beautiful PowerPoint presentation and very expensive consultants.”

What school parents want is similar to what Councilmember Thomas is demanding: a way to know which buildings will receive updates and in what order, Mazer said. “We’re just asking you to tell us which ones, when and how.”

The Facilities Planning Process was never intended to be a way for parents to track what projects are in progress, district spokesperson Christina Clark told Billy Penn, but “to provide the opportunity for stakeholder voices — parents and guardians, community members, employees, students and more — to be heard and considered as recommendations are finalized to be included in the Facilities Master Plan.”

Parents can track construction projects at the district’s capital projects website, Clark said. 

Mazer finds the site confusing. She cited as example the electrical upgrades at Coppin, which are shown as “Pending – Bid Process” but also not yet approved by the Board of Education. 

Halting the planning process without putting a temporary plan in place left parents scrambling for answers, she said. “It just erodes trust in a moment when we really thought that this new superintendent was going to focus deeply on building trust.”

This story is part of a yearlong reporting project with Temple University’s Logan Center for Urban Investigative Reporting on educational disparities within the Philadelphia School District.