Heating problems in Philly schools rise as temperatures plunge

Philadelphia School District facilities workers have been on the job since Christmas to fix faulty heating units. It's a $70M problem.

Spring Garden School is one of several schools whose outdated heating system would cost more to repair than to replace.

Spring Garden School is one of several schools whose outdated heating system would cost more to repair than to replace. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

With temperatures plummeting, facilities workers in Philadelphia’s public schools have dealt with a steady stream of weather-related maintenance issues.

“Our building engineers are working double time on this,” said school district spokesperson Lee Whack. “It gets cold every winter, but obviously not this cold.”

The region’s deep freeze has made life especially difficult for the district’s facilities team, which oversees an aging building stock on a limited budget. To replace all the heating systems the district says are on borrowed time would cost more than $70 million, according to a WHYY analysis.

Building engineers have worked every day since December 26th, including weekends, said Whack, to battle the creeping cold. Maintenance workers will be on the job through this weekend and are expected to arrive early Monday morning to detect any new problems.

“This is an all-hands-on-deck effort,” said Whack

At Solis-Cohen school in Northeast Philadelphia, heating issues prompted some students to move classrooms, as reported first by CBS3.

District officials also acknowledged heating problems at Overbrook Education Center, which serves a large number of visually impaired students, Strawberry Mansion High School, Mastbaum High School, and Nebinger School.

At Strawberry Mansion, two heating units froze and a boiler required repair, according to Whack. Overbrook Education Center had at least two classrooms without heat. Nebinger School dealt with overheating due to malfunctioning controls. Mastbaum, meanwhile, had problems with a temporary boiler.

Whack said problems at all five schools have either been fixed or are in the process of being fixed, and should be remedied by Monday.

Staff also reported cold conditions at Cook-Wissahickon School, according to Arthur Steinberg, who runs the health and wellness fund for the city’s teachers union.

Staff members at several city schools reached out to WHYY with tales of frigid hallways and drafty classrooms, though all asked to remain anonymous. One staffer at Tilden Middle School in Southwest Philadelphia said students in an autistic support classroom had to be moved because of the cold conditions.

Frigid temperatures in Baltimore schools prompted outrage after the city’s teachers union sounded alarms. There have not been widespread reports of similar conditions in Philadelphia.

Steinberg, however, said there was an uptick in complaints when teachers came back from winter break, and he expects more problems to crop up during the temperature plunge this weekend.

“I’m anticipating a lot of issues,” he said.

Thanks to vacation and snow days, Philadelphia students have been in class just one day since Dec. 22. That’s at least limited the disruption caused by poorly-heated buildings.

But school officials have not tried to hide the ongoing problems.

Last winter, the district released an outside analysis of its facilities that found $4.5 billion in deferred maintenance. The backlog will grow, analysts said, without further investment.

The district is already facing a structural deficit, and the state contributes less money to capital projects than it once did. Without new money from the city or state, the district’s capital woes are expected to grow.

The report assigned a facilities condition index — or FCI — number to each school that calculated the cost of needed repairs, divided by the cost to erect a new building. Buildings with an FCI over 60 percent, the analysts said, should be considered for closure or replacement.

Evaluators also assigned FCI scores to systems within each building, including the “heat-generating systems” inside individual schools.

WHYY combed through each school’s facility assessment and found 60 school buildings with heat-generating systems that had an FCI higher than 60 percent.

That is, 60 school buildings in Philadelphia have so many deficiencies that analysts  recommend replacing the heating systems.

Before diving any further into this data set we should note that some of these reviews were conducted as far back as May 2015, and some schools may have been updated in the year-and-a-half since.

But this data does provide a snapshot of just how many schools at a given time operate with deficient or compromised heating systems in Philadelphia.

At Solis-Cohen, for instance, the heat-generating system had an FCI of 125.19 percent, meaning it would be cheaper to replace the entire system than to repair its many flaws. Nebinger (101.10 percent) and Cook-Wissahickon (91.93 percent) also had heating systems that needed significant repairs.

Here is the complete list of Philadelphia school buildings with heating systems that should, according to the outside analysts, be replaced.

Lincoln (Pool House) 486.57% 1955 128,200
George Washington HS (Fieldhouse) 200.03% 1963 122,760
Olney ES 199.94% 1900 787,837
Gompers 161.50% 1950 1,045,520
Cramp 151.03% 1969 1,495,243
Moffet 140.62% 1973 746,800
Fell 133.32% 1981 1,138,870
Elkin (Main) 132.60% 1973 993,244
Cassidy 130.34% 1924 1,103,826
Bache-Martin 127.70% 1906 1,079,938
Solis-Cohen 125.19% 1948 1,698,970
Ethan Allen 124.47% 1930 1,241,219
Rhawnhurst 120.97% 1949 858,820
Adaire 115.95% 1957 931,446
Rowen 115.62% 1995 1,052,988
Spring Garden 114.64% 1967 711,220
Catharine (Main) 109.34% 1992 1,073,525
Hopkinson 108.10% 1927 1,213,550
Sullivan 108.10% 1970 1,213,550
Greenberg 106.94% 1964 1,680,300
Sheppard 102.26% 1986 634,780
J.H. Brown 101.87% 1937 1,019,811
Nebinger 101.10% 1975 1,101,530
Dunbar 99.24% 1974 879,928
J. Marshall 98.67% 1909 1,091,262
Carnell 93.83% 1970 1,398,103
Conwell 93.12% 1960 1,038,052
Barton 92.32% 1972 1,347,974
Cook-Wissahickon 91.93% 1969 1,364,777
Richmond 91.38% 1955 798,882
Finletter (Main) 89.62% 1930 1,171,729
Kenderton 89.36% 1962 1,699,119
Forrest 87.98% 1929 1,180,878
Comegys 87.95% 1966 1,318,923
Stanton 87.81% 1966 746,800
Bodine 87.75% 1958 1,101,530
Building 21 / The U School 85.75% 1970 1,864,461
Pennell 84.61% 1972 1,316,198
Taggart 82.57% 1970 1,232,220
Ludlow 82.12% 1927 1,311,194
Disston 82.02% 1924 1,266,610
Frank 81.98% 1962 1,390,915
Edmonds 80.87% 1988 1,502,935
AMY Northwest 80.09% 1,929 1,297,098
AMY @ Martin 79.91% 1950 1,162,226
Hamilton 74.64% 1970 1,670,965
Harrington (Annex) 72.89% 1948 280,050
Kirkbride 71.15% 1926 1,064,190
Meade 70.78% 1975 1,754,980
Taylor (Our Lady of Pompei) 67.71% 1963 275,140
Morrison 67.04% 1924 1,566,301
Lowell 65.72% 1913 1,895,136
Beeber 65.54% 1933 2,595,130
Wilson 64.49% 1928 2,604,465
Ellwood 63.15% 1957 1,038,444
Harrington 63.14% 1969 1,241,555
Prince Hall 62.96% 1971 1,474,930
Penrose 61.58% 1986 797,564
Decatur 60.75% 1964 1,666,241
Emlen 60.25% 1926 1,390,915


To replace all of these heating systems would cost the district nearly $72 million, according to WHYY’s calculations.

Heat-generating systems have a lifespan of about 35 years, according to the facilities assessment. When the conditions assessment was conducted, Philadelphia had at least 96 buildings with heating systems over 35 years old.

The district’s oldest heat-generating system, at Olney Elementary School in North Philadelphia, was installed in 1900, 12 years before the Titanic sank. The 1906 installation of Bache-Martin’s heat-generating system coincided with the exoneration of French military officer Alfred Dreyfus.

Here are the 25 oldest heat-generating systems in the School District of Philadelphia.


Olney ES 199.94% 1900 787,837
Bache-Martin 127.70% 1906 1,079,938
J. Marshall 98.67% 1909 1,091,262
Lowell 65.72% 1913 1,895,136
Frankford 40.67% 1914
Franklin ES 32.48% 1915
Bregy 26.62% 1923
Cooke 0% 1923
Cassidy 130.34% 1924 1,103,826
Disston 82.02% 1924 1,266,610
Morrison 67.04% 1924 1,566,301
Logan 40.47% 1924
Crossan 22.54% 1924
Wardin 0% 1924
Kirkbride 71.15% 1926 1,064,190
Emlen 60.25% 1926 1,390,915
Hopkinson 108.10% 1927 1,213,550
Ludlow 82.12% 1927 1,311,194
Wilson 64.49% 1928 2,604,465
Forrest 87.98% 1929 1,180,878
AMY Northwest 80.09% 1929 1,297,098
Comly 0% 1929
Ethan Allen 124.47% 1930 1,241,219
Finletter (Main) 89.62% 1930 1,171,729
Beeber 65.54% 1933 2,595,130


Naturally, the age and condition of a heat-generating system is just one factor in building conditions.

But if you are interested in the status of your school, we’ve compiled the age and FCI score for every heat-generating system in the school district. For those systems with an FCI score of 60 percent or greater, we’ve also included the cost of replacing that system.

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