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"Critical missteps" plagued school construction project in Philadelphia

Aug. 22, 2020
The district's inspector general says the construction that accompanied the co-location of Benjamin Franklin High School and Science Leadership Academy, was rushed and endangered the safety of students and staff.

The Philadelphia School District ignored warning signs, rushed crucial work, wasted money, and endangered students and staff on a $50 million construction project aimed at co-locating Benjamin Franklin High School and Science Leadership Academy, the district’s inspector general has found.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that “critical missteps” in the planning, design, and construction stages of the project resulted in significant environmental and health concerns and ultimately the displacement of nearly 1,000 students.

The 124-page report describes missteps that swelled the project's cost to five times the original budget and landed staff and students in the hospital.

Special education students at Ben Franklin said they were unnerved by the sounds of sledgehammers and drills. School staff complained of  headaches.

Students and staff talked about “clouds” of “concrete dust” so thick they could taste it. One staffer described a “meteor shower” of debris coming from a classroom ceiling. Others likened conditions to being in a “war area” or a building fire.

In one month alone — March 2019 — four Ben Franklin staffers became severely sick. And by fall 2019, as the construction charged ahead, more students and staff at Ben Franklin and at Science Leadership Academy grew ill. Students suffered asthma flareups, burning eyes and throats, and in one case, a persistent cough that caused “several hours of vomiting.”

“Nevertheless, the warnings went largely unheard or unappreciated,” the report found.

Joyce Wilkerson, the school board president, says the issues exposed in the report are “deeply problematic.”

The decision to co-locate the schools came after the School Reform Commission, the district’s former governing body, ordered officials to terminate the lease for the Science Leadership Academy in 2017.  The school needed to move into underused space inside an existing school as soon as possible.

As a result, the construction at Ben Franklin happened while students and staff were inside the building, exposing them to dust, asbestos, and generally “deplorable conditions.” Public outcry forced the district to remove students from the building shortly after the 2019-20 school year began.

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