A group of parents at George McCall Elementary School in Society Hill, just recently awarded a Blue Ribbon by the U.S. Department of Education for all-around excellence, has started a petition demanding that the District respond to the building’s need for a new roof and heating system, plumbing renovations, a functioning sprinkler system, and anecdotal reports of black mold growing in at least one classroom.
Paige Wolf has children attending McCall, and she began looking into the conditions of Philadelphia schools after seeing an Al Jazeera report on the topic. She said she wrote to the District about her concerns and received a response simply thanking her for the feedback. She said she felt it was a “beyond dismissive” response. So she began blogging about her experience.
Wolf is the author of the petition, which had 467 signatures as of Friday morning.
In September 2016, the District released its Facilities Condition Assessment, which examined the physical conditions of its buildings and prioritized the most urgent repairs. It also detailed the problems at each school, including McCall. This assessment determined that the cash-strapped District has $4.5 billion in deferred maintenance on its nearly 300 buildings.
Wolf was alarmed by the score her school received: 56 percent, on an index where 60 percent and higher indicates that a school should be considered for replacement. McCall is more than 100 years old, built in 1909.
“I was shocked to see [in the facilities assessment] that my children’s school was one of the worst rated in terms of structural and environmental hazards,” Wolf wrote in her blog post. “I was alarmed to see flaking asbestos tiles in the auditorium, potential black mold in the basement, a severely deteriorated roof, the lack of a sprinkler system, no bathroom exhaust fans, and a wide variety of other concerns.”
Wolf spent months contacting District officials before going public with her information because she was concerned about the image of a school that she otherwise loves.
“It’s an amazing school, but it just goes to show you that appearances can be deceiving,” Wolf said. “I don’t want to alarm people and scare them out of Philadelphia public schools. … I want our families to feel safe and confident in their choices, but if we don’t have answers and transparent information, then it leaves us powerless and that’s not fair.”
And it wasn’t just Wolf making complaints. Over the summer, her coalition of parents assembled a list of questions and sent them to the District, members of the School Reform Commission, and City Council members Mark Squilla and Helen Gym.
“The reality is that we have a lot of facilities that need attention,” said District spokesman Lee Whack, citing the facilities assessment. “We are prioritizing from there and making sure we get to deferred maintenance as soon as we possibly can.”
Regarding the problems Wolf raised at McCall, Whack said, “We looked into each of those issues and we remain focused on addressing every issue we can when we have the funds and the ability to do so. We have over 300 facilities across the city and most of them need some maintenance.”
Although McCall’s needs are great, there are 20 active school buildings and about a dozen other facilities, mostly fieldhouses, that have worse scores than McCall on the Facilities Condition Index.
Wolf runs her own public relations firm and wrote a book for parents looking to avoid common public health hazards for their children. In her research for the book, she interviewed pediatricians, public health experts, and environmental advocates. She felt equipped to get the message out about McCall.
“Let me start with McCall,” Wolf thought at first, “and see if I can make some changes and get some answers so maybe we can take that protocol and help some of my friends in other schools who have these problems.”
She spent the month of August trying to get a response from Danielle Floyd, director of capital programs, with no success. On the Saturday before school started, she sent one last email: If the District chose not to respond by the start of school, she would go to the national press.
“We were just awarded the blue ribbon, and I don’t want to put a stain on McCall. This is where my children go, and I’m proud to be a member of this school, but I have no other choice but to sound the alarm,” Wolf said. “They left me with no choice but to build strength in numbers.”
She received a response “hours later.”
“I got a response from Floyd that did not answer my questions,” Wolf said.
For example, in response to her question about why the school did not have an automatic sprinkler system, she received one sentence simply restating what she said: “the school building is not covered by an automatic sprinkler system.”
In response to another complaint, that the school had plumbing problems leading to overflowing toilets, she was simply told that the school had 16 plumbing work orders over the summer and that they had all been “closed.”
But closing a work order does not necessarily mean it has been repaired. It means that the maintenance department has inspected the problem and determined how to address it: that maintenance needs to fix it, that it needs to be referred to and paid for by the Capital Programs Department, or that it can be handled by the building engineers.
In the case of Muñoz-Marín Elementary, which had severe mold problems this summer that nearly delayed its opening, it had been determined that the building engineer could deal with HVAC problems by manually controlling the thermostat settings for each classroom. But at some point, things went awry and the air conditioning blasted, causing condensation and mold in some rooms.
Mold also caused the temporary closing of John B. Kelly Elementary in Germantown this week. The District has not said when the cleanup will be completed and the school will reopen.
On the issue of mold in McCall’s basement, documented in the facilities assessment, Floyd said in an emailed response to Wolf that a team from the District’s Office of Environmental Management Services inspected the school after receiving Wolf’s email and found no evidence of mold.
“They say the mold is gone,” Wolf said, “but I had a teacher say she had mold on her wall and she saw them just paint over it. I can’t prove that, but I don’t doubt it.”
Wolf also wanted to know when the roof would be fixed.
Floyd simply pointed out that although the facilities assessment did note that the roof was a high priority for repair, it also put the necessary response time at four to five years. But Wolf noted that the District’s five-year spending plan, which runs through 2022, only lists planned electrical repairs at McCall — nothing is set aside to repair the roof.
The report also noted that “tiles,” either floor tiles or ceiling tiles, in the auditorium and gym contain asbestos and are in “poor condition.” But the District’s five-year spending plan does not include repairs to any floors or ceilings at the school.
Wolf said the school’s new principal has been supportive, but there’s only so much she can do when major repairs and renovations are paid for by the District and authorized by the School Reform Commission.
“If we knew what they can’t afford to fix … we could try to raise the money ourselves,” Wolf said, referring to crowdsourcing among community members. “Maybe we can come up with a plan B, but we have no way of knowing without more information.”
Wolf’s next step is to testify before the SRC.
“My intention is to start with McCall,” Wolf said, “so that my friend who’s a teacher at another school, with asbestos flaking on her head, will have a better shot at getting answers.”