Safety of city schools questioned; The city controller cited hazards. The district said fixes are be

The Philadelphia Inquirer
September 7, 2006 Thursday
BYLINE: Susan Snyder, Inquirer Staff Writer

As 178,000 public school students prepared to return to class in Philadelphia today, City Controller Alan Butkovitz raised questions about just how safe the schools are.

Butkovitz said impromptu inspections of 12 city schools by his office last month found serious structural problems, electrical hazards, and safety violations such as padlocked fire doors, among other problems.

"Conditions at these schools are less than desirable for students and teachers - and in some cases pose a direct danger to the safety and well-being of students, teachers and other school personnel," Butkovitz said at a news conference yesterday at his headquarters, during which he presented a slide show of the conditions found.

Butkovitz sent a letter yesterday to James Nevels, chairman of the School Reform Commission, requesting access to every district school for a similar inspection.

Angry school district officials immediately dismissed the allegations of unsafe schools as inaccurate, cited the district's $1.7 billion building and renovation program that will address some of the problems identified, and said they knew about nearly all the problems Butkovitz raised. School officials said they are typical in antiquated buildings. The district's schools are, on average, 71 years old.

The report that came one day before the district was scheduled to open its 270-plus schools is the latest volley in a continuing battle between the Controller's Office and the school district.

In its defense, the district provided an Aug. 23 letter from the city's Department of Licenses and Inspections that said the schools have received "partial certification" for the 2006-07 school year, which allows them to open. District officials said they were told which problems needed to be addressed. L&I inspects the schools annually, they said.

The public relations officer for L&I could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Furthermore, district officials said, the controller has no business inspecting buildings, and they questioned his motivation and the qualifications of his staff to perform such a job.

"We're confused why the city controller is investigating our schools. It's especially perplexing since we have in our hand from the duly authorized agency a letter that says we're in substantial compliance to open for the new school year," said Fred Farlino, the district's interim chief operating officer.

"We're very confused by it. We're questioning the motivation and timing of it."

The report is the latest in a series of run-ins between the controller and district chief Paul Vallas since Butkovitz took office earlier this year.

The feud began when Vallas objected to the district's putting two Controller's Office employees on its payroll. Since then, Butkovitz and Vallas have sparred over the controller's attempts to monitor how the district uses its credit cards, spends money, and invests funds. The district has resisted, accusing the controller of harassment.

Butkovitz said yesterday that his office investigated the building conditions as part of his audit of the district's capital budget. He said the poor condition of the schools indicated that the district might not be spending the money properly.

"They're not prioritizing," he said, adding that some of the electrical hazards are "inexpensive things to correct."

Although he acknowledged that the district has plans for new schools, including a $62 million state-of-the-art high school in partnership with Microsoft, which is to open today, he said that if there is a risk of electrocution, "any grand vision doesn't justify kids being subjected to this kind of risk today."

The inspections were overseen by two employees, one of whom said she had a degree in civil engineering and the other an engineer who works for the Controller's Office.

During the inspections, the first of their kind conducted by his office, Butkovitz's teams tried to visit 23 schools but were allowed to enter only 12.

Examples of the findings include:

Carver High School for Engineering and Science: electrical hazards, lack of fire hoses in school fire stations, expired fire extinguishers, and padlocked fire exit doors.

University City High School: structural damage caused by weakening of beams in the pool area. A section of the ceiling collapsed, and the area has been closed off to staff and students.

Martha Washington School: a breezeway that was in danger of collapsing and had to be cordoned off.

Boone Disciplinary School: leaking toilets and locked fire doors.

Solis-Cohen School: electrical hazards.

Butkovitz's office is encouraging parents to call his office's hotline to report building problems. He also has created a checklist for parents to use.

District officials said they would investigate the reports of locked fire doors. Principals are fined $100 if a door is locked, said district spokesman Fernando Gallard.

As for Butkovitz's request to inspect all schools, Farlino said the district would allow the controller's team in with 10 days' notice.

"We want to know what he is investigating," Farlino said. "He was showing up in our buildings waving his badge around and menacing the poor building engineers and cleaning ladies."

Butkovitz rebuffed the offer of entrance with advance notice.

"The whole point of auditing and investigating is to show up where you're not expected when you're not expected," Butkovitz said. "We're interested in finding out what the real conditions are."

Farlino acknowledged that the district has more maintenance problems than it can handle; a study has shown that it has $4 billion in capital needs - far more than the current capital plan can accommodate.

"There's never going to be a time when our buildings are in 100 percent compliance," Farlino said.

There are maddening circumstances.

Take the case of Bok Vocational Technical High School in South Philadelphia, which was not a part of Butkovitz's report. Students in several classrooms will share their space with 40-gallon buckets that are catching leaks. The school has falling plaster, collapsed ceiling areas, and warped floor boards.

"If you walk on the roof of my school, it's like walking on a water bed," said principal A. Larry Melton.

"Bok is in serious need of repair, and our condition assessments says it's not worth repairing," Farlino agreed. "We need a new Bok. We know that."

But the district still hasn't found a site for a new school; even if one were found tomorrow, a new building would be years away.

The district made some temporary fixes there.

In one area, a tarp was set up to catch the rainwater and hooked up to a plastic tube to divert the water out a window.

Butkovitz-Vallas Clashes

In the eight months that City Controller Alan Butkovitz has been on the job, he has had several run-ins with Philadelphia schools chief Paul Vallas.

February

After Vallas tried to fend off efforts to put two top Controller's Office staffers on his payroll, Butkovitz sought credit-card receipts for Vallas and other high-ranking district officials. Vallas accused the controller of retaliation, which Butkovitz denied. The Philadelphia School Reform Commission approved the hires over Vallas' objections.

March

Butkovitz criticized the district's ability to manage money, saying that a poor investment strategy cost the district $18 million.

June

Butkovitz and Vallas feuded over reimbursements made to a top school aide who was traveling home to Chicago weekly.

Butkovitz asked for all no-bid contracts handed out by the school district and commented: "We expect Vallas to resist, as he has throughout our audit."

Vallas said an intern from Butkovitz's office who was writing down license plate numbers of cars at a school parking lot was engaged in harassment.