Controller: City schools a health threat

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Exposed insulation was found at Dimner Beeber Middle School in West Philadelphia. Exposed asbestos was found at Francis Scott Key Elementary in South Philadelphia.

In a sweep of Philadelphia public schools, investigators from the City Controller's Office found a litany of health and safety threats, including exposed electrical wires, cockroaches, and widespread water damage.

City Controller Alan Butkovitz, in releasing a report detailing "outrageous" School District building conditions, said his office found immediate health hazards that seemed to be largely ignored by district officials.

"Why isn't that a public health emergency?" Butkovitz asked at a news conference.

Over four months, members of the controller's staff visited 20 schools throughout the city as a follow-up to a 2008 report citing problems with facilities. Things remained much the same, Butkovitz said.

Water damage was discovered at 95 percent of schools visited, he said. In some bathrooms, cockroaches were found on floors and toilets perpetually had waste in them.

"That's not something that happens in a first-world public facility," Butkovitz said. "That's totally unacceptable."

The controller's staff found "fire hazards, electrical hazards, safety and tripping hazards," as well as building damage, the report said. Investigators said they believed the schools they examined were emblematic of others throughout the district.

Among the problems were a 600-volt electrical closet left open in an auditorium where children could access it and improperly sealed asbestos insulation.

Electrical hazards were found at 70 percent of schools visited, according to the report, while fire hazards were found at 75 percent.

Butkovitz said the district did not respond to the report or to the notification of the emergency asbestos situation.

Spokesman Fernando Gallard said that the district discovered the asbestos problem, at Francis Scott Key Elementary in South Philadelphia, before Butkovitz alerted officials, and has fixed it.

"If bathrooms are not being cleaned, if there are conditions that we have personnel to handle and the job is not being done, that's a management issue and we have to look into it," he said.

Gallard said the district welcomed the Controller's Office's scrutiny. The report, he said, underscores the need for more school funding.

"We are very grateful for the report, because it allows us to very directly show our funders and the public the need that we have in our schools for maintenance and capital investments," Gallard said. "It brings to light what we have been saying for many years - that we need investments to be able to repair and maintain our buildings."

Butkovitz said there is a "very long history" of the district's ignoring facilities problems and letting small issues snowball into larger and costlier ones. Even in a time of fiscal austerity, he said, there are problems that require fixing.

"We see the mold; we know it's not good," Butkovitz said. "We know that if you have mold in your house and you have young kids, you're supposed to do something about it."

The district has a large stock of older buildings. The Inquirer has reported on widespread facilities problems that officials have estimated would cost $4 billion to fix in full.

Gallard said that the district was not sitting on its hands - that it had completed 34,043 facilities work orders this past school year and has a maintenance budget of $23.9 million.

He said the district expected to complete an updated report on its facilities needs by the fall. He said it was likely that the $4.3 billion price tag to fix all city school buildings problems would likely rise.

The city's teachers' union has long sounded an alarm over physical conditions inside schools.

Jerry Jordan, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president, said that he was not surprised by Butkovitz's findings.

"We have a number of buildings that are old, falling apart, and dirty," Jordan said. "Young people are going to bathrooms where there are no doors on the stalls. It just says a lot about how much we care about kids."


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