Amid debate over Biden’s spending plan, leaders highlight potential boon for Philly schools

The exterior of Benjamin Franklin High School

Benjamin Franklin High School located on North Broad Street. The school was forced to close in 2019 due to exposed asbestos. (Nathaniel Hamilton for WHYY)

School advocates are fighting for a voice in President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Act.

The U.S. Senate is actively debating the $3.5 trillion proposal, which would vastly expand the nation’s social safety net and combat climate change.

Advocates in Pennsylvania are fighting to include a provision that would invest in school infrastructure. Rep. Dwight Evans (PA-03) proposed a plan that would allow districts to qualify for tax credits when revamping buildings over 50 years old.

Evans visited South Philadelphias’ Academy at Palumbo High School with Superintendent William Hite Friday to discuss how the bill would impact the commonwealth.

“Nothing is more essential than our schools,” said Evans, “if we’re talking about building a growth economy, we must build facilities that are prepared for our young people and our teachers.”

The average age of district school buildings is 75 years old and nearly half would be eligible under the plan, said Evans.

In Pennsylvania, schools average 57 years old, which is almost a decade older than the national average, said Hite.

“I’m for roads, I’m for bridges, I’m for all that,” said Evans, “but when you talk about the human safety net, what more human safety net can it be than a school’s facility?”

The Philadelphia Board of Education voted yesterday to pass a $375 million capital bond investment for district facility improvements.

But, said Hite, “We know local resources alone will not solve this problem.”

Hite and Evans also emphasized a proposal from Rep. Bobby Scott (VA-03) which would distribute $82 billion to school districts across the nation to improve school facilities, the Rebuild America’s Schools grant program.

The two proposals “represent a turning point for schools here in the commonwealth and schools across the nation,” said Hite.

School infrastructure problems have been rampant in Philadelphia, largely based on problems with asbestos and lead. Masterman teachers shed light on their concerns around asbestos, at Masterman and district-wide, in September.

Hite said Masterman is not included on the list of buildings that would be eligible for the tax credits.

“That work is already happening [at Masterman.] Schools like Masterman would be eligible for this, simply because of the age of many of our buildings,” said Hite.

The 91-year-old Palumbo building has also already received major renovations, but still needs more assistance. According to Principal Kiana Thompson, the school’s roof would leak often in recent years.

“Every time it rained, our classrooms would get wet,” said Thompson.

In 2021 the school’s roof was repaired, but it took a while to get there.

“Ceilings were repaired 3 to 4 times,” said Thompson. “It would be a heavy storm and we would have to start all over. So it was just money being spent over and over again because the roof had not been repaired.”

Thompson said they need help with keeping up the integrity of the historic building, like new painting, plastering, dealing with small areas of asbestos, and renovating the old chairs in the auditorium.

“We have grandparents that come in and say ‘I went to school here,’ and they point at classrooms and walls and say, ‘I remember this and that.’ You won’t find that in new buildings,” said Thompson, “So the history that comes along with it, our building has a story, and we want to be here for many many years so we just need the funding to keep it up.”

The U.S. Senate is currently at a standstill over the bill. Democrats hold a slim majority in the chamber and two centrist democrats — Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin — have balked at the bill’s price tag.

When asked about the hold-up, Evans said, “I don’t view it as a whole divide, I think there’s a little internal family discussion.”

He said his priority is to ensure that school needs stay part of the conversation.

“We don’t want them to get lost in this discussion,” said Evans, “Right now we are competing to make sure that schools are very essential.”

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