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Money for District overhaul should go to making buildings safer, healthier

By Jerry Roseman on Oct 15, 2015 12:59 PM

Philadelphia schools Superintendent William Hite has a plan to spend up to $20 million over several years on privatization, school closures, new schools, and other turnaround efforts aimed at getting 5,000 students “in better schools close to where they live.” My 30 years of experience in performing onsite evaluations of deficient school-building conditions leads me to propose something very different. Let’s spend that $20 million fixing the schools that our kids attend now.  

With $20 million, we can protect all school children and staff, while promoting achievement for many more than the 5,000 children in the limited number of schools that Hite hopes to impact. And we can do so without ignoring the universal positive impact of improving indoor air-quality conditions.

Too many of our schools are literally falling apart around our kids. Shockingly poor conditions contribute to student and staff illness, absenteeism, damaged books, supplies, and materials and undercut academic achievement. Healthy buildings – free of mold, flaking lead-containing paint and plaster dust, water intrusion and damage, leaky roofs, and rodent droppings – are a basic right and one being deferred at great cost to our school system.

Since 2010, I’ve evaluated nearly 150 schools, helping to document more than 5,000 environmental problems in them.

I regularly see kids spending more than 1,300 hours a year in building conditions like these:

These photos illustrate conditions that are all too common in our schools and in all too many cases continue unchecked for months or years at a time. They are also largely hidden from any public view.

I’ve witnessed firsthand how leaky roofs and mold destroyed tens of thousands of dollars worth of music and sports equipment, textbooks, and furniture. Classrooms have been rendered unusable. But the damage to students’ well-being is far more disturbing.

Indoor air-quality problems exacerbate asthma and other respiratory diseases, placing the most vulnerable children – those from economically disadvantaged and minority communities – at greatest risk. Instead of serving as a refuge, our schools endanger these children.

The challenge of repairing our school buildings can appear overwhelming, but we cannot ignore the problems. Inflated estimates of $4 billion to permanently upgrade all our buildings are routinely provided, but we shouldn’t let this number paralyze us from taking action now. We must immediately act to protect our students and staff and to improve academic opportunity and performance.

We should first concentrate our efforts on the repair of building interiors, where our kids and staff spend every day. Then we should address exterior problems, which are generally more costly, as money becomes available.

This strategy works. For example, at Bryant Elementary in West Philadelphia, I documented flaking, lead-containing paint, and damaged walls and ceilings in October 2013. Dust, mold, and moisture are asthma triggers, particularly for the school's vulnerable, at-risk population, so I recommended immediate low-cost actions to address the situation.

The School District's maintenance department was able to stabilize plaster throughout the school, paint walls and ceilings, replace damaged and moldy ceiling tiles, and perform spot repairs of leaky roofs, exterior masonry, and more. This work cost less than $50,000, resulting in real improvements in the school's condition. Additional work has since been conducted.

Just imagine if $100,000 were allocated to repair unsafe building conditions inside every one of our most dilapidated schools; this total of $20 million would make a sea change of difference everywhere. Almost immediately those schools would become safe and healthy places for our children and teachers. Investing $25 million to $30 million would be transformative.

District leaders have not made facility improvement a priority or engaged the public in addressing this issue. They should do so now. Existing building conditions and indoor air-quality information should be readily available to all, but it is not.

I propose the District create a comprehensive triage list of interior and exterior building conditions for every school. Up to $100,000 would be allocated to schools to fix the most critical problems. The priority would be on major improvements in interior conditions to protect school occupants as well as the investment in educational materials and supplies, and to prevent ongoing damage.

More than 50 years ago, Winston Churchill noted, “We shape our buildings and thereafter, our buildings shape us.” We must improve the condition of our buildings now, in order to provide the learning environments that our students need to do their best work.  Spending an additional $20 million a year to fix our schools – now that would be money well-spent.


Jerry Roseman is an independent environmental science consultant who has assessed conditions in almost all of Philadelphia’s public schools on behalf of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. He has worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and New Jersey's Health Department and has taught at Penn State, Hahnemann School of Medicine, and Drexel University.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. 

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Comments (22)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 15, 2015 2:35 pm

Allowing school facilities to deteriorate has been going on since the state takeover in 2001. It is a deliberate policy to promote privatization of public schools. Whenever schools are taken over money misteriously appears for upgrading the school to be turned over to a charter company or sold such as is happening at Wister.

Corporate education reform is one of the biggest scams in the history of this country after the endless wars for the miliary/industrial complex.

Submitted by G (not verified) on October 15, 2015 10:15 pm

Would you please comment on the physical and mental health consequenses of keeping children all day long in windowless classrooms?  (In "interior" rooms with no outside wall.)In the winter, when the building heat is on, it pours into the rooms and traps children amd teachers in 90-95 degree rooms all day long. All day long it is impossible to perceive the season, weather, or time of day. Should children be forced to learn and take high-stakes tests under these conditions? Isn't there an actual LAW against subjecting chidren to this unrelenting toxic environment? (I am not even mentioning the accompanying mold, dust, and crumbling plaster.)

Submitted by Jerry Roseman (not verified) on October 16, 2015 5:07 am

Unfortunately there is no "law" governing temperature and humidity levels inside a school classroom and you are absolutely correct about the consequences. In fact, there is no law to protect our children and staff from mold growth on walls, or ceilings or in ventilation systems either, and nothing that legally requires any specific amount of fresh air to be provided in our schools.  

Yet these problems are all well recognized to trigger and to worsen real health problems, to compromise teaching, education and concentration, to increase absenteeism and to undercut academic achievement.  

When we look more closely, even from a financial and environmental sustainability standpoint, the "runaway" heating that we have in many, many schools costs tens and even hundreds of thousands of $$ that can be saved simply by implementing some, easy and cost effective solutions -- money can be saved and children and staff protected. 

It is important for all involved to work together and to voice concerns and to speak out about these conditions and to demand action, accountability and transparency so that all our schools are safe, healthy, warm [but not too warm] and comfortable.  It is also critical that awareness is raised about the correlation between indoor air quality conditions and the very real impacts on occupant health and academic achievement

Unless these most basic, fundamental elements are in place, high quality education is unlikely to be achieved.

Submitted by South Seas Bubble (not verified) on October 16, 2015 5:40 am

You're on the payroll of PFT?  Good grief.  Maybe if PSERS didn't invest in hedge funds and derivatives which cost it $500 million in investment fees last year paid to Wall Street banks the money saved could fix a few buildings.  

Submitted by Mindy En (not verified) on October 16, 2015 11:50 am

Over the course of my 18 years in two different high schools in the district I've amassed a photo collection that includes pictures of mold in my classroom, mold in stairwells, puddles on the floor, leaks from the ceiling, and mushrooms growing out of floorboards that were buckled because of the dampness. Right on, Jerry!

Submitted by Karel Kilimnik (not verified) on October 17, 2015 4:57 pm


Thank you for the thoughtful commentary and yes, the painful photos of physical conditions present in far too many school buildings. We just do not have a District superintenent intent on helping everyone. The next superintendent has to be an educator who has not gone through the Broad superintendents academy and actually can focus on helping every single child have access to a well-rounded education in a physically safe and healthy environment with all the necessary resources (small class size, full-time counselor, school nurse, library with a certified school librarian, classroom assistants). The common good comes before profit.

Submitted by T.Bah (not verified) on October 19, 2015 9:53 am
Karel said it best, "The common good should come before the Profit." The School Reform Commission will have and should have this information. The health ans welfare are in the hands of flesh and blood human beings, this should not be a hard decision. Stop Privatizing our Schools, stop taking down the value of our neighborhoods with experiments disguised as Charter Schools, stop turning a blind eye on the poverty, lack of resources and lack of appreciation our Teachers, Nurses, Counsellors receive for educating our future. Everywhere else that displays a modicum of success, celebrates Teachers as heroes and protects children from harm. I wish criminal charges cold be brought up against the officials that knowingly make decisions that negatively impact minors. It's not as if this information isn't reported. Our communities are drained, the projected outxome reported and yet still no real reform is selected. Sleep well, no really, sleep well. You know what they say about Karma.
Submitted by Katie Kelly- parent (not verified) on October 18, 2015 8:39 am

Many thanks to Mr. Roseman for drawing attention to the issue of the conditions of school buildings. Maintaining safe, clean, structurally sound buildings is something that parents assume is so basic that we can trust that the school district/SRC is handling it.

However, it is known and has been realized in tragic ways that they are not. Unfortunately, the pattern of political games, misappropriation of resources, lack of transparency, and overall ineptitude that permeates school district leadership is so pervasive that safe buildings are not even a given. We as Philadelphians need to be able to elect our school district leadership; our children and our city's future deserve better. 

I second Mr Roseman's recommendation and appreciate him taking the time to share the conditions of Philadelphia's school buildings with all of us.

Submitted by Emiliano (not verified) on October 20, 2015 10:53 am

Thank you so much for working so hard to keep our children healthy and safe. This needs to be made a top priority. It is avsolutely shocking to see the school conditions Philly kids have to spend every day in. SOmething needs to be done immediatley. 

Submitted by Emily E. Teacher (not verified) on October 20, 2015 9:09 pm
My school building has lead paint and mold issues. Leaking roofs and windows damage books and supplies. My colleagues prepare for rain by moving and covering their shelves before a storm.
Submitted by Jerry Roseman (not verified) on October 21, 2015 5:58 am

A major reason I think it is so important to devote resources now to urgently fix the interior building conditions in our schools, is because of the situation you, and many other school staff and students, live with on a much too-frequent basis.  Not only do the conditions you describe directly affect occupant health and safety but they also present corrosive consequential and cascading effects on academic opportunity, protection of costly and needed educational materials, social justice, and on the fiscal sustainability of our schools.  

Damage to books and supplies, and the loss of educational spaces, even temporarily, results in the undercutting of student achievement and compromising high quality education.  Flaking lead paint, dust on floors, desks and books, mold growth, water intrusion, and rodent and pest infestation is not just dangerously unhealthful, but also makes the ability to recruit, hire and retain staff increasingly problematic.  Runaway heating and cooling wastes hundreds of thousands of $$, and makes effective teaching much more challenging.  

When children miss time in school because of illness, learning is impacted; when educational staff become sick and are unable to come to school, excess costs associated with the need to provide substitute teaching occur; this in addition to experiencing educational impacts from not having the assigned classroom teachers in the classroom. 

For all the above-stated reasons, and because the conditions described are those that no parent, no teacher, no administrator, no politician and no member of the public would find acceptable for their kids, it is time to address and fix this problem now. 

Submitted by mark (not verified) on October 27, 2015 9:40 am

Good Luck with the renovations.  be sure to use a non-toxic fungicide on the mold remediation.  The leading caues for Asthma in the K12 system are the leaking windows, carpet VOC's and chemical toxicity used to in our schools.  Much easier and simpler way to perform cleaning than our traditional methods.  Which increases attendance and decreases Asthma in all school , patient and workplace settings. 


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Please take a look at what happened when I pushed the district for action on this same issue. This should be PARAMOUNT and I thank you for your advocacy!!

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