The numbers are so big as to be almost incomprehensible: The Philadelphia School District, according to a newly released facilities assessment, has $4.5 billion in unmet capital needs -- 12,000 outstanding repairs.
Years of delayed maintenance on the school system’s 308 buildings and large athletic facilities means that three-quarters of them are now in poor repair. A sizable portion are recommended for replacement or closure in the not-too-distant future.
In the next decade alone, the school system should spend $3 billion on capital projects, the report concluded.
That the district now fully understands its needs via the first comprehensive building survey in 14 years is a good start and gives it a way to prioritize capital efforts, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr said. The district is in the midst of a $1.1 billion, five-year capital plan that will take care of some of its issues, but clearly it must do more.
Where will the money come from?
“This is not something that we expect to be solved overnight,” Hite said. “We all need more money. We know that there are limitations at the state level, at the city level, and at the federal level.”
The School District’s $4.5 Billion Repair Bill
The district can sell bonds to finance capital needs but has no revenue-raising ability to finance its operating budget. Its primary funders are the city and the state.
City Council President Darrell L. Clarke is high on alternative revenue sources to help the schools with their building needs, he said -- examining energy savings, retrofitting old systems, even perhaps selling advertising space at schools, much the way SEPTA does on buses. (He’s been shot down on this subject before, but perhaps it’s worth revisiting, Clarke said.)
“There are other ways than sticking your hand in the taxpayers’ pockets,” he said. “I’m not sure there’s going to be an appetite for that. People are pretty much taxed to the limit.”
Clarke lamented a missed opportunity during the Obama administration, when money was offered in the form of a federal stimulus package. That was spent mostly on operating costs, not on capital needs.
“It’s another decision that’s coming back to bite us,” he said.
A spokeswoman for Mayor Kenney said he was glad the district is exploring the state of its buildings, stressing that it has had to make tough choices in the past because of inadequate state funding.
“The city currently funds over $1 billion a year to the district and cannot increase this investment beyond that without raising taxes,” Deana Gamble, the spokeswoman, said in a statement. “However, through the community schools initiative, the city will improve how city and nonprofit resources, volunteers, and private funding can better support school communities.
State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.) thinks the report, issued Friday, is a call to arms.
“Help has got to come,” Hughes said. “Help has got to make itself present from numerous sources.”
Hughes laid the problem squarely at Harrisburg’s feet, and said that opportunities for assistance might come via an education-funding lawsuit now before the Supreme Court and via the work of PlanCon, a state program of funding school-building projects.
That program has been on hold, and a commission that Hughes sits on is now assessing how it might move forward. In the past, Philadelphia capital projects have rarely been eligible for PlanCon dollars because they didn’t provide direct educational benefit, just fixed leaky roofs and upgraded electrical systems.
Hughes -- and others -- has suggested that dollars might come from another source, too. The Trump administration has said it wants to bolster spending on infrastructure projects.
“If you want to make major investments in infrastructure, it’s not just roads and highways and bridges,” Hughes said. “It’s schools. The federal government has greater capacity than anyone to assist local school districts, and here’s a great way to do it.”
The district, with its report, has now made public a school-by-school analysis of capital needs, identifying its buildings in the best and worst shape.
The school whose needs are greatest is Cassidy Elementary, at 65th and Lansdowne. It would cost $26 million to repair and $32 million to replace. Hughes expressed serious concerns about the school’s condition in a recent letter to Hite and School Reform Commission Chair Joyce Wilkerson, describing “a cafeteria that no child -- or adult -- should have to eat in: Rotting wood floors, leaking, exposed pipes -- these are health and safety hazards that must be addressed.”
Cassidy, whose student population is growing, would be “under significant consideration” as the district prepares its list of capital projects for the next fiscal year, said Danielle Floyd, the system’s director of capital programs.
The teachers’ union has been sounding the alarm on facilities for years, its officials frustrated by the district’s tendency at times to let small repairs go, forcing costlier repair jobs down the line when emergencies present themselves, they said.
“The conditions under which students learn and staff work certainly would not be acceptable in any other industry,” said Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. “Poor conditions matter. When it’s too hot or too cold, or children are displaced because of a leak, that affects learning.”
Councilwoman Helen Gym, a longtime schools activist, commended the district for wrapping its arms around a set of problems that have felt abstract for many years.
The challenge now, she said, is to not get defeated by the price tag.
“The central question is how are we going to build the public will to support investments to getting our school buildings up to 21st-century standards?” Gym said. “Schools aren’t just a financial burden. They’re a civic asset.”