Officials talk about aging city school buildings
Feb. 16, 2016 – The Philadelphia Tribune – by Samaria Bailey
The average age of city public school buildings is nearly 70-years-old.
That information and other facts were shared with the public during a recent meeting in a Mount Airy school that had a boiler accident earlier this year that left a school employee in a coma.
State Sen. Vincent Hughes, State Sen. Art Haywood and a panel that included among others, the state auditor general, teacher’s union President Jerry Jordan and City Councilman Derek Green heard testimonies about the decline of the city’s school buildings during a meeting at F.S. Edmonds Elementary School.
The panelists said Harrisburg needs to take action to prevent future tragedies and protect school children.
“We’ve been fighting for education funding for a long time,” Hughes said at the public meeting last week. “[And] the incident that happened here caused us to focus more on the issue of the physical infrastructure of our school buildings. It’s clear it’s a very serious problem.”
Hughes added that the $5 billion the school district said would be needed for an overhaul of the school buildings is primarily the responsibility of the state.
“This is where Harrisburg has got to step up,” he said. “We need to be creative and maximize the strength and the power of every dollar we get, but the state is the one that’s walked away for the last four years and because of Republican intransigence, they are just locked down,” he said. “They don’t want to fund the schools. Because of that, we’ve not gotten the appropriate funding under Gov. Wolf.”
To provide further evidence of how pervasive the problem is, Hughes, referring to Edmonds, noted that, “you should see the storage room, there is a leak going on right now in this building as we are talking. Thousands of dollars of school books and school material has been destroyed. As a result of water leaking down in those floor tiles, what is happening to that asbestos?”
Director of Capital Programs for the school district, Danielle Floyd, said the average age of the district’s school buildings is 69.5 years and the infrastructural problems have just been accumulating, mainly because of the costs.
“We have a 25-year backlog of maintenance issues,” she said. “If we were to repair just the heating systems it would cost $119 million, that’s 75 percent of our total, annual maintenance budget.”
Other major issues, said the panel, are leaky roofs, and exposure to mold and lead, both of which can cause and irritate existing medical conditions.
“Exposure to mold exacerbates asthma,” said Maura McInerney, a senior staff attorney with the Education Law Center. “[And] there is no safe level of lead exposure. It has an impact on behavior. It directly impacts Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). [And] it does irreparable harm to [student’s] ability to learn in the classroom. We need to get on top of this problem. We are not testing these buildings. The cost of failing to address these problems is far more significant.”
Although the $5 billion would cover a complete overhaul of the district’s schools, Jerry Roseman, a teacher’s union member and environmental science consultant, said “to stabilize the interior of these buildings” would “cost tens of millions of dollars.”
State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said that without the state, this will not be possible.
“In my view, it is almost impossible for the district to do this on its own,” he said. “The costs are so overwhelming, I don’t think the district can do it without Harrisburg.”
Hughes said they will continue to investigate similar infrastructure issues across the state.
Green said City Council is planning a similar hearing and is waiting on the school district to “finish a report on what happened at Edmonds.”