Philadelphia needs to fix its aging, in some cases environmentally troubled, schools, and Mayor Kenney on Tuesday laid the responsibility for a new round of repairs and upgrades squarely on City Council’s shoulders.
Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said the Philadelphia School District needs to spend $150 million on repairs to its 300 buildings, including money for an expansion of a lead paint abatement program. To do so, the district is banking on almost $700 million in additional funding from the city proposed in Kenney’s budget.
Council, however, has publicly expressed qualms about fulfilling the mayor’s full request for schools, which would almost certainly be tied to a property-tax hike. The mayor was clear at a news conference at Logan School, which has 330 students in kindergarten through fifth grade on Lindley Avenue near Ogontz Avenue.
“It’s up to elected adults to take care of our kids,” said Kenney, adding that both Harrisburg and Washington have made it known they are not coming to the rescue. “Right now, only Philadelphia can secure this needed funding.”
The mayor’s comments came as Council enters the final stretch of its budgeting season. On Thursday, the School District will pass its own budget for the next year. But it’s up to Council to fund it, and that decision will come sometime in the next five weeks.
Tuesday’s news conference also came in the wake of an Inquirer and Daily News series detailing environmental hazards inside city schools. “Our buildings need to be safe, and that’s an absolute must,” Kenney said. “We can’t allow our children to wait any longer.”
Hite said the series revealed “no surprise factor,” that the environmental and structural challenges were well-known to the district, which has been hampered by budget woes over the last decade.
“The health and safety of our students is fundamental and must be a basic expectation when we discuss funding for our schools. All students deserve to learn in clean, healthy, and inviting environments,” Hite said.
The superintendent said that in addition to expanding and accelerating lead-abatement efforts, the district would plan needed building improvements “at the neediest school buildings” sooner, and add projects to its five-year capital plan, for which it recently borrowed $275 million.
Hite said the district made its plans assuming Kenney’s full proposal would be passed.
“Anything short of that naturally would put that at risk,” said Hite.
Logan was built in 1924, and according to the district’s internal data, it is so decrepit it would be more cost-effective to replace it than to fix everything wrong with it.
Logan isn’t close to many recreation centers or playgrounds, so the three-acre school site is a hub, a designated city community school. There is a modest playground that children use with close teacher supervision, but principal Chuanika Sanders-Thomas said she worries about what happens when school is over and neighborhood kids are playing unsupervised.
“We certainly need a lot of work done to the playground,” said Sanders-Thomas.
The school’s lighting is dim, the paint in the vast, often-used auditorium is chipping in spots, and technology is hampered by the fact that the electrical system needs an upgrade. The bathrooms are original to the building, and badly outdated, Sanders-Thomas said.
“You make it work, but there’s a lot of things that go wrong in old buildings,” the principal said.
With the additional city funding, Logan would undergo major renovations, including installation of a new playground, bathroom renovations, removal of chipping and peeling paint, and electrical system upgrades.
Richard Washington, Logan’s community school coordinator, said the needs were clear.
“Our kids are the ones who suffer when we don’t do what it takes,” Washington said.
Responding to Kenney and Hite’s statements, Council President Darrell L. Clarke said he had gotten mixed signals from the School District, adding that he had been told the money Council was being asked to authorize was for operations, not capital needs.
“There are some concerns, frankly speaking, about how money gets spent [at the School District], on operating and on capital,” Clarke said.
Clarke continued to be a skeptic about the School District’s need for the $700 million now, when it is not projecting a deficit for three years.
“The first response to a fiscal challenge, be it capital or operating, shouldn’t be to stick your hands in the taxpayers’ pocket,” he said.
When Kenney pitched local control of city schools, he said it was time to end the cycle of the district’s begging the city and state for funds every year. It is time, the mayor said, for the city to do what state and federal lawmakers have refused to do for years.
But Clarke said, “The mayor was pretty much the only one saying that.”
Councilwoman Cindy Bass, whose district includes the neighborhood where Logan is located, said no one in Philadelphia wants to send children into schools with mold, leaking roofs, and water fountains with do-not-drink warning signs painted in red above them.
“An investment in our kids is never going to be a bad investment,” Bass said. “The safety of our kids is paramount.”
But, she said, there needs to be a conversation about how best to spend taxpayer money, pointing out that some schools are so rundown that it would take almost as much money to fix them as to build a new one. She said that city taxpayers already shoulder a heavy burden and that the state needs to step up financially in a “dramatic way.”
“Our kids deserve better, and we cannot and we should not allow [state leaders] to walk away from their responsibilities,” Bass said.
Staff writer Wendy Ruderman contributed to this article.