Two schools: 15 miles and worlds apart

Upper Dublin High School in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, and Overbrook High School in Philadelphia are a mere 15 miles from each other. But they’re worlds apart.

Take the matter of water — that most basic element of human life.

Upper Dublin’s new high school, finished in 2012, features an 18-lane swimming pool with two spring-diving boards and a movable bulkhead that allows the pool to be configured for swim meets and water polo matches. The natatorium even has its own air-filtration system so the smell of chlorine doesn’t seep into the surrounding hallways or waft in the way of  enjoying the tasteful mosaic that adorns the entryway to the facility.

At Overbrook — built in the 1920s — there is no pool. The comprehensive high school in West Philadelphia does have water, but it isn’t always in the right place or in the right state. Testing recently revealed six outlets with lead levels above the school district’s minimum threshold for lead content.  Principal Yvette Jackson hopes to convert an abandoned room into a badly needed science lab, but can’t yet because the room has a drainage problem. The space fell into disrepair because budget cuts restricted the number of science teachers at Overbrook — and thus the number of science labs it could faithfully use.

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Democratic state Sen. Vincent Hughes, who represents the communities surrounding Upper Dublin and Overbrook, toured both schools Monday to hammer home what he sees as the state’s funding inequities.

“It breaks my heart,” he said.

Reviewing the PlanCon funding formula

Hughes co-chairs an advisory committee tasked with re-examining a system called PlanCon — Pennsylvania’s byzantine process for seeking and receiving state dollars to aid local school construction projects. Through PlanCon, the state reimburses school districts that have undertaken the “construction of new schools, additions to existing schools, and/or renovations or alterations to existing schools to meet current educational and construction standards,” according to the state department of education.

PlanCon determines the amount districts receive through a formula that favors poor districts. Unfortunately for  Philadelphia — where the average school building is about 70 years old — PlanCon money doesn’t go toward basic system maintenance unless it has an explicit educational purpose.

“In a lot of the projects that we do, when we go in, in many cases we’re not touching the educational spaces,” said Danielle Floyd, the district’s director of capital programs, in testimony before the PlanCon committee.

Philadelphia has about $5 billion in deferred maintenance, according to a just-completed district analysis of its building stock. As the district tries to chip away at that backlog, it may find much of the PlanCon money out of reach. And, with a capital projects budget of $172 million in the current fiscal year, there’s little hope the district can fix its problems on its own.

Philadelphia and other cities could at least get a boost if the state created new wells of state cash set aside for emergency maintenance or systems upgrades. Another fix might involve creating a rating system so that the state funds the most urgent projects first. Right now, money is doled out on a first-come, first-serve basis.

But any PlanCon changes will have to pass muster with Harrisburg Republicans, who likely won’t be as keen on spending millions to rehab sagging inner-city schools.

State Rep. William Adolph Jr., R-Delaware, pointed out that Overbrook is well under capacity at around 600 students. The school, which at one point accommodated more than 3,000 students, doesn’t use its fourth or fifth floors. Many of the city’s comprehensive high schools are similarly underused.

“Does anybody give any thought to — when you’re gonna build a new high school — just to build a bigger one,” said Adolph. “Instead of trying to maintain three high schools within five miles each other why wouldn’t we just build a bigger state-of-the-art high school?”

City schools at construction disadvantage

When it comes to school construction and repair, the role of state governments varied greatly. A dozen states have provided zero capital funding over the last 20 years, according to a report compiled by the Education Commission of the States and presented to the PlanCon advisory committee earlier this year. Another seven states provided funding at some point in the last two decades, but no longer do.

Some fiscal conservatives would almost certainly look at palatial new school facilities such as Upper Dublin High School and wonder if Pennsylvania should eliminate PlanCon and join the ranks of those who leave school construction to local districts.

Other states, however, make major investments in school facilities. Hawaii, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Wyoming, Connecticut, and Delaware all provide more than half of the total dollars dedicated to construction in their respective states.

Pennsylvania, at the moment, falls somewhere in the middle. Traditionally, the state earmarked about $300 million annually for PlanCon. That recurring funding was recently axed from the state budget and replaced with an $850 million bond that will cover outstanding payments.

From 1994 to 2013, Pennsylvania spent $7.3 billion on school construction. That was about 15 percent of the total money spent during that time, not far from the national average of 18 percent. In the Mid-Atlantic region, however, states tend to spend a lot more than Pennsylvania does. Delaware (57 percent), New York (36 percent), New Jersey (32 percent), Ohio (27 percent), and Maryland (26 percent) all doled out more proportionally in state aid for school capital projects.

Even if Pennsylvania decided to invest more in school construction and direct more of that money toward poor, urban districts, it would only make a dent in the overall gap between the haves and the have-nots. That’s because big-picture school districts disproportionately carry the tab when it comes to capital projects.

Nationwide, local dollars account for 82 percent of all school facilities spending, according to a 2016 report from the 21st Century School Fund. Another 18 percent comes from states, while the federal government provides nothing.

Compare that to operating costs, where the average school district receives 45 percent of its money from local taxpayers, 45 percent from the state, and 10 percent from the federal government.

Money from the state and federal governments is typically used to plug the budget holes of poorer districts and help even the playing field. When it comes to capital costs, there is a lot less smoothing — and therefore a greater chance of disparities developing between districts.

Upper Dublin: A case in point

In 2007, the district’s taxpayers agreed to borrow $119 million to help build the high school that now has become one of the most stunning in the region. In addition to its natatorium, Upper Dublin has three interior courtyards; a tricked-out television production studio; separate practice spaces for the choir, orchestra, and band; something called a “guitar lab”; a black box theater; and a gorgeous main stage theater that principal Robert Schultz likens to the Kimmel Center in Center City Philadelphia.

English classrooms feature two spaces — one set up for a typical class discussion and another dedicated to small-group learning. The wall separating the two areas has a large glass partition on which students can doodle.

In one such classroom, a teacher proudly displayed autobiographical poems written by her 10th-graders — one of them an immigrant from Cambodia.

The final stanza of this particular poem summed up, rather neatly, the yawning gap between what greets the students of Upper Dublin and Overbrook every morning.

I am from philly

Where I always thought fighting would solve problems

Started from the bottom

Now I’m here.


Correction: A prior version of this article mistated the size of the bond the state of Pennsylvania secured to pay for school construction. It is $850 million, not $850 billion as originally stated.

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