School District of Philadelphia

Philly School Board ‘Deeply Regrets' Asbestos Issues at High School

An Inspector General's report chronicled several failures of the school district that led to the relocation of the entire student body at Benjamin Franklin High School.

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What to Know

  • The School District of Philadelphia was harshly criticized for failures and oversights that led to the closure of Ben Franklin High School and Science Leadership Academy
  • Those failures included poor dust and asbestos containment, an unrealistic construction timeline and cost overruns
  • The district says it has made significant changes to avoid this happening again.

A scathing report from the School District of Philadelphia released Wednesday chronicles the district's failures and missteps during rushed construction plans that led to the closure of two schools.

Benjamin Franklin High School, and the Science Leadership Academy magnet school, which shared a building at North Broad and Green streets, were closed "indefinitely" in October 2019 after exposed asbestos was found on Sept. 25 around air ducts in the boiler room.

According to a report from the district's own Inspector General, the unrealistic project ballooned to five times its initial budget, had no backup plan, disrupted classes with construction noise and construction debris, and caused illness in students and staff.

"On one particularly harrowing day in the Spring of 2019, at least four staff members fell ill and two of them were taken to hospitals by ambulance," the report said. "The academic impact was no less substantial. Construction conditions such as noise, dust, and debris frequently disrupted school days as well as critically important standardized testing events. Teachers were forced to alter lesson plans because of incomplete spaces and overall conditions inside the buildings."

The district was rushing construction work so SLA students could fit in the Ben Franklin building, says the report, which mirrors a 2019 investigation by the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Contractors were given an 18-month schedule and $10 million budget to complete the work so that the district did not have to renew a Center City lease for SLA's old location. They had no choice but to start work while students were still in school.

Unforeseen issues and trying to work around an operating school led to cost overruns and a total budget of more than $51 million, the report says.

"Many knew immediately the project schedule compared against the amount of work was too strict," the report said. One witness quoted in the report said “someone higher up the food chain wanted SLA
kids in this year,” and that while doing construction in an occupied building, “your hands are tied behind your back.”

Students at Benjamin Franklin High School and the Science Leadership Academy, which share a building on Spring Garden Street, will be moved to alternative locations. Those locations have not yet been determined, the Philly schools superintendent said at a press conference.

The time crunch allowed zero margin for error if the work could even be completed on time.

"Alarm bells were sounded by many witnesses before and during the work on this project," the report says. "Nevertheless, the warnings went largely unheard or unappreciated. There was no other alternative than getting the job done on time."

Ben Franklin students and staff endured more than a year surrounded by construction dust that was ineffectively contained and regularly covered entire sections of the building. Not long after the 2019-20 school year started, the district finally took action on the air quality when an SLA student was hospitalized.

"For the Ben Franklin community that spent a year dealing with substantially worse conditions this proved to be little consolation," the report says.

The building was ready to reopen to students in February 2020.

District responds

"I assure you that I regret how we managed the project," Superintendent William Hite said in letter to parents Wednesday. "More importantly, I regret the impact the project had on the students, staff and families of Benjamin Franklin High School and Science Leadership Academy. They deserved better from us. I truly appreciate how both school communities responded in the face of adversity."

Hite and Board Chair Joyce Wilkerson both wrote that the district is addressing the issues raised in the report by:

  • adding staff to the Office of Environmental Management & Services to work on environmental projects
  • hiring an outside construction management firm to oversee major projects
  • building relationships with more asbestos abatement companies to move quicker in the future
  • changing air quality standards for construction projects

"The Board deeply regrets that students, teachers and staff at Benjamin Franklin High School and Science Leadership Academy experienced the disruption of having to relocate early in the 2020 school year, and that Ben Franklin students were learning in a building under construction with circumstances as described in the report," Wilkerson said.

The discovery of asbestos during construction has led the Philadelphia School District to close Ben Franklin High and Science Leadership Academy schools “indefinitely.” Teachers are worried about their students, who don’t know where they will go to school next week.
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