The Inquirer story on environmental hazards in Philadelphia schools details many of the issues we face in our aging school buildings. How do we fix this? It is not about how we got here or who is to blame. It is about fixing this as quickly as possible for our children and our teachers and staff, who learn and work in these buildings.
The condition of our buildings is not new, nor is it a surprise. In 2016, we hired expert engineers and architects to identify needed updates and replacements across our school buildings, half of which are more than 70 years old. More than $4.5 billion in needed repairs was identified.
Using that data, we have prioritized our spending and projects to make the most critically needed repairs, including:
- Improving water safety by testing every water outlet in every school.
- Installing new hydration stations in every school.
- Initiating a lead paint stabilization program with the active involvement of parents, labor, and community partners.
This work is not enough, so additional projects are planned and in construction:
- 57 roof replacements and structural renovations, which eliminate leaks/mold.
- 20 heating and cooling projects, which improve air quality and reduce the potential for mold.
We also looked at the health concerns of our students and prioritized restoring trained school nurses in every building. We hired a pediatrician to develop the protocols needed to address the chronic health issues facing vulnerable children. And every day thousands of dedicated staff make repairs and clean hundreds of buildings across the city.
But we can do better. We need to raise our expectations around what are acceptable cleanliness and maintenance conditions. And we need to be more vigilant about how we do this work. That is why we are:
- Creating a standard for building cleanliness and maintenance that will be consistent across every school in the district.
- Investing in a new work order system to document and track needed repairs.
We are facing a challenge that could seem too big to solve. It isn’t. But it will require an all-hands-on-deck effort from every neighborhood in this city. Right now there are creative solutions that will allow Philadelphia to devote more resources to improving school conditions. It is critical that the state change and fully fund PlanCon to restore and rebuild school buildings across Pennsylvania, and streamline the bidding process to make the process cheaper and easier. At the federal level, the law could be amended to allow renovations to existing school buildings to qualify for federal tax credits.
This is a moment to work together, and to move as quickly as possible to do whatever we can to create cleaner, safer, and more modern school buildings for our children, and our teachers and staff. They deserve nothing less.
Dr. William R. Hite is superintendent of the Philadelphia School District.