Families pass chalk greetings on the first day of school at Greenberg Elementary in Bustleton. (Elizabeth DeOrnellas for Billy Pennr)

The School District of Philadelphia will begin developing a “master plan” to deal with its aging school facilities, something city officials have been asking for since at least March. 

That’s what Superintendent Tony Watlington promised City Council’s Committee on Education during a Wednesday hearing exploring the option of creating an “independent school building authority.”

This “independent authority” would bond and oversee school buildings. It’s a pressing topic, as damaged asbestos caused several schools to close during the 2022-23 year.

It’s also a somewhat contentious idea. In May, Philadelphia Board of Education President Reginald Streater asserted that increasing funding should be a priority, not creating a new entity.

Councilmember Isaiah Thomas, chair of the education committee, called for the hearings in April, citing the district’s apparent inability to handle its facility needs. If created, the independent authority would supervise building repairs and construction projects.

“The state of our school buildings is an emergency,” Thomas told Billy Penn. “The creation of an independent authority could help relieve the burden on the School District of maintaining facilities and in turn improve learning outcomes.”

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

Council plans to continue exploring the idea in collaboration with various stakeholders, including the ones at today’s hearing, according to Benjamin Wilcox, a Thomas spokesperson. “We are supportive of anything that gets students, teachers, and staff into safe buildings,” Wilcox said.

The average school building in Philadelphia is 70 years old, and many are failing in dangerous ways. 

In April, Universal Vare Charter School in South Philly became the sixth to close this academic year after the discovery of damaged asbestos, joining Mitchell Elementary, C.W. Henry, Building 21, and Frankford High. Simon Gratz was briefly closed in March.

The precise conditions of all Philly school buildings remain unclear, as the district paused its facilities assessment program late last year — over a third of schools have yet to be evaluated. However, based on available data, a Billy Penn/Logan Center analysis found that nearly 4 in 10 assessed schools showed “unsatisfactory conditions,” with fewer than a third rated “fair” or above.

Community stakeholders, especially parents, have raised concerns about the district’s actions, or lack thereof, on asbestos remediation. 

Ben Franklin High School and Science Leadership Academy at 550 N. Broad St. (Danya Henninger/Billy Penn)

Parents from Science Leadership Academy intervened in 2019 when the school district planned to move students to Strawberry Mansion High School while addressing asbestos concerns at Ben Franklin High School, where they were set to co-locate. More recently, the Philadelphia Democratic Socialists of America’s Safe Air for Philly Schools campaign banded together with parents, teachers, and community activists to create Corsi-Rosenthal boxes, homemade air filters, used to keep classrooms free of toxins. 

At Wednesday’s hearing, Watlington said the district’s facilities plan will be completed by June 30, 2024, as he and other school officials tried to prove the district is doing what they can to address the issue.

Also testifying were school facilities experts, union leaders, and a Frankford High School student. Here are four takeaways from what was said.

A master plan to create ‘state-of-the-art learning environments’

The master plan will be developed by a project team made up of “internal and external stakeholders,” Watlington said at the hearing. The district also plans to ask for community input.

The project team, as well as advisory groups and consultants for the project, will report to Oz Hill, district chief operating officer, and two to-be-determined chairs outside of the district.

In designing this plan, the project team is expected to take into account the district’s vision for learning as well as designing “state-of-the-art learning environments.”

The team is supposed to work to improve the functionality of schools and collaborate with local families, school staffs, and community members to improve school facilities.

Additionally, the district’s current capital improvement plan will allocate $2.489 billion from January 2023 to June 2028 and includes more than $602M to new construction, $440M to major renovations and $353M to HVAC systems, per a presentation from district officials. 

Other states have advice for Philly

Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, a school infrastructure policy non-profit, was concerned with the master plan as outlined during the hearing, because it didn’t seem to try to address how construction, operations, and maintenance would be managed.

“I felt concerned actually, as I listened to the school district talk about what they’ve got planned for June 30,” said Filardo, who has also worked with DC’s public schools, at the hearing. “Frankly, I looked at their strategic guideposts and things. I don’t think it’s gonna get you there.” 

She said it’s essential for the district to identify the obstacles that prevented them from modernizing their schools before, and urged them to not involve political agendas in this process.

The district should also be aware of how it organizes government or government-related entities to address this issue, said Kim Mooers, executive director of the Rhode Island Health and Educational Building Corporation. 

RIHEBC is a quasi-state agency that finances school construction, while the state’s School Building Authority handles the actual projects. Mooers wishes the RIHEBC and SBA were housed in the same department, so they could have the same leadership. 

Inside Furness High School’s auditorium, principal Daniel Peou recalls when it would rain inside before recent repairs. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

It’s also crucial for the school district to analyze costs for the entire “life cycle” of construction projects and to acknowledge how school closures impact communities, added Cyndi Smith, executive director of Facilities and Design for the 21st Century School Program and of facilities planning, design, and construction for Baltimore City Schools.

Students are increasingly frustrated

Joan Dipre, a rising senior at Frankford High School, wants nothing more than to spend the last year before graduation in a safe environment. 

Frankford students have been learning virtually since April while the district remediated damaged asbestos in the main building – the “Old Wing.” Students will start the year with in-person learning, but those in grades 10 to 12 will be learning in the school’s annex, called the “New Wing,” while first-years will have classes at the Roberto Clemente Middle School, about 15 minutes away.

Dipre hopes other students will still get to experience taking classes in the main building, as the its fate is still in limbo.

“All we want is a safe space to learn, but ultimately to be kids for the last couple of years of our childhood… I’ve done my time and I’ve lived what I’ve had to live, but what about the other kids who need a place of substance and structure?” said Dipre. “We need what I needed after COVID.”

Rebuilding trust is key to success, says Penn prof

As the school district navigates addressing facility concerns, Akira Drake Rodriguez, professor of urban planning at Penn, advised the district on accessibility and engagement procedures while taking on this school facility process. 

Clear data expressing the current state of environmental hazards, including asbestos, mold, vermin and more, is crucial to understanding the “comprehensiveness” of the district’s facilities plans, Rodriguez said at the hearing. 

In addition to this, a lack of involvement of teachers and other stakeholders in facilities-related discussions have weakened trust between the school district and these communities.  

“Stakeholders are concerned their participation and opinions may be solicited but not legitimately heard, or included in planning and decision making processes,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez ended her testimony by urging the district to not close any more schools in an effort to reduce the operating budget.

“Budgets are and always have been moral documents,” she said. “If we want to improve the future of the city, we must invest in public schools … [they] serve about 15% of the city’s population. We cannot afford to ignore its impact on a city any longer.”