Fixing every Philadelphia School District building - more than 300 schools, athletic fields, offices, shops, and garages - could cost $5 billion, district officials said Thursday.
But amid a perpetual budget crisis, the school system manages to allocate just $160 million yearly on maintaining its buildings, leaving thousands of work orders unfilled and putting students' health at risk daily, some suggested.
"We find ourselves in a very difficult position of having to play catch-up. We focus on things" that are emergencies, said Danielle Floyd, the district's director of capital programs.
Her comments came Thursday evening at a hearing convened by Democratic State Sens. Vincent Hughes and Art Haywood.
The legislators, who represent the city, called the hearing at F.S. Edmonds Elementary in West Mount Airy after an accident there nearly killed a maintenance worker in January. Only the quick action of another employee saved Christopher Trakimas' life and prevented injuries to hundreds of children inside the school.
Hughes and Haywood suggested that they would pursue state-level action to help shore up the crumbling facilities.
Jerry Roseman, who has spent 30 years examining health and safety issues inside city schools for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said, "The conditions in the schools are extremely problematic. In fact, they're dangerous.
"We have a lot of areas in these buildings where we have mold growth, where we have lead-based paint."
Roseman warned against using the $5 billion needed as an excuse for district officials to throw up their hands and say they could never keep up.
Floyd and other officials did not dispute that the district's deferred-maintenance strategy ends up costing it more money, but said it has no other choice. A state budget that is months overdue, for instance, means that the school system may not have enough money to hold classes through June.
"We want to make investments on facilities," Floyd said, "but we have to operate within our means."
But Eugene DePasquale, Pennsylvania's auditor general, noted that the costs will only rise.
"The longer these fixes are put off, the more the fixes are going to cost," DePasquale said at the hearing.
Joquina Mitchell-Somerville, for 27 years a teacher at Edmonds, said she has watched funding problems cause building conditions to erode steadily.
"We have classrooms that are too hot and classrooms that are so cold children must wear their coats," Mitchell-Somerville said. "Work orders go unresolved with the same answer: There's not enough money in the budget."
A steam leak in an Edmonds supply closet has ruined thousands of dollars' worth of books. There is mold in some spots.
"These conditions wouldn't be tolerated in an office or a government building," the fifth-grade teacher said. "As an educator, I wonder why they're tolerated in a school. It sends a message that fixing our schools isn't a priority."
The legislators were alarmed. "I'm very concerned about what we've heard today," said Haywood, who represents Edmonds' district.
"Our schools are in crisis," said Hughes, the Democratic chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee. "This is 2016. This is not what we're supposed to be providing for our children. We're doing this with duct tape. We're doing this with spit. We're trying to hold the whole thing together."