Flooding at Palumbo: When it rains, it pours

Additional water damage happened two weeks after flooding in the school was discovered Sept. 11. The teachers' union took issue with how the District allocates its resources.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

It rained inside Academy at Palumbo again last night. This came after weeks of work repairing water damage in the 80-year-old school that was caused by flooding discovered on Tuesday, Sept. 11, after a three-day weekend.

The sixth floor of Palumbo, a high school that formerly was an elementary school at 11th and Christian Streets, didn’t just flood, according to an inspector from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. The water cascading down through the building carried chunks of plaster coated in a layer of lead paint. And as that water seeped down through several floors of the school, it was soaked up by other walls and ceilings. The resulting water damage caused more paint to flake and peel.

Students at Palumbo are no strangers to water intrusion, given the school’s long-leaking roof. Staff members have been reporting rainwater in classrooms for years. And the District already had put Palumbo on the list of schools to receive paint and plaster stabilization after Gov. Wolf announced that the state would send the city over $7 million for such work. The flooding was caused by clogged roof drains.

At the moment, students are continuing to attend classes at Palumbo, but portions of the school where repairs are underway have been roped off. Work in the hallways, cafeteria, and library is complete. Work is still going on in three classrooms and a staff bathroom on the upper floors. As of Tuesday night, that list includes two newly damaged rooms on the fifth floor.

“The District doesn’t always address these problems before a crisis like Palumbo hits,” said Arthur Steinberg, head of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ Health and Welfare Fund, which manages employee health-care benefits. “They don’t search out the root causes ahead of time. Instead, they just deal with symptoms when they appear. They need to start dealing with root causes and prevent more major repair issues from occurring.”

The problems of water intrusion have happened so often that the Democratic Second Ward, in which the school is located, has issued a statement condemning the District’s inaction. The committee people and ward leader called on the school board for more transparency and called on their elected officials for legislation that ends the District’s current approach to repairing schools, which the letter described as “meager restitution.”

The statement reads, in part: “Students at Palumbo were dismissed early on Tuesday [Sept. 11], but told that classes would be held in the damaged building the next day without receiving any credible assurances from the administration or the district about the safety of their building, which has already had numerous documented instances of lead residue and asbestos damage.” The letter was approved unanimously by committee people at a Second Ward meeting the week of the flooding.

“The Second Ward Democrats condemn the systemic failure of governance that has allowed our schools to fall into such disrepair,” the statement went on.

The material suspected of containing asbestos tested negative, and the District promptly informed parents.

“This is the harsh reality when we have a lot of old school buildings,” said District spokesman Lee Whack. “We did know there was an issue with the roof, and we’re addressing it. That’s a priority to us, and it’s important that the whole school community there knows that we are focused on making improvements.”

Whack said the District had already set aside money to repair the school’s roof in this year’s capital budget — a $780,000 investment that was budgeted before the flooding this fall.

The big picture

If the problems were so well-known in the school community, why did the flooding seem to come out of nowhere?

To some the explanation is neglect. To others, austerity.

According to a 2016 report from the National Council on School Facilities, school districts like Philadelphia that have buildings in need of major repairs, should be spending at least 4 percent of the total value of District property on repairing and renovating the buildings.

In Philly, that would mean spending $576 million annually by issuing bonds to support the capital budget.

But last year, the District spent just $155 million, and that was the highest annual expenditure since 2012, when Superintendent William Hite took over. Before 2012, the District spent an average of $154 million, but that average declined to $103 million in the years since 2012. This has increased the District’s deferred maintenance backlog of over $4 billion, though it also led Wall Street agencies to improve the District’s credit rating.

“We’ve done our facilities condition assessment,” Whack said. “We know where the issues are. Obviously, the amount of issues far outweighs the amount of money that we have to address the issues.”

This year, that amount will increase to $273 million. At a school board committee meeting, the District Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson also pointed out that construction costs in Philadelphia are relatively high.

Steinberg was sympathetic, acknowledging that the District is underfunded, but he pushed back on the idea that the District is doing all it can.

“One of the major issues here is that they don’t allocate the resources they have properly,” Steinberg said. “They’re not dealing with these problems until the issue requires immediate remediation, as opposed to doing preventative maintenance.”

When maintenance is deferred, or put off, every $1 in deferred maintenance costs eventually turns into $4 in capital renewal costs, according to a study by the Pacific Partners Consulting Group.

Some schools are in worse shape

In 2015, the District’s assessment found that it would cost just under $500,000 to fix the roof. According to the same assessment, Palumbo is in relatively good shape overall compared to other District schools. But the roof was in such bad shape that, on Sept. 11, a widespread rumor among staff was that it was not a portion of the ceiling, but the roof itself that had collapsed.

Palumbo’s sixth-floor hallway on Sept. 11. (Photo: Philadelphia Federation of Teachers)

Staff members and parents have been aware of the problems for years. Some parents went as far as to keep their children home from school after the flooding that day.

“I kept him from school yesterday and again today because I believe the conditions there are unsafe,” said one concerned parent. “From what his friends said, they have half the building taped off, yet students and teachers are going to class on the same floors where there are peeling tiles from the partially caved-in ceiling.”

She sent her son back to school a day after asbestos test results came back negative.

“I am still concerned, though, that they said the school was ‘safe’ prior to getting those results,” said the parent who did not want to be identified. “It makes it hard to trust what the School District is saying.

“I do not like my son missing school. And I was told it was possible the school would move to a building further south on Broad Street while repairs were being done. But so far, it doesn’t seem like this is happening.”

Steinberg said the District had done a poor job communicating with parents and staff. Whack said that the District made a robocall to parents and sent letters home with students.

Jerry Roseman, the union’s environmental scientist, inspected the school four times between Sept. 11 and Sept. 17.

On the day of the flooding, the school closed early, but Roseman recommended that the school should not reopen the next day to allow enough time for a comprehensive evaluation of the latest problems. Instead, the school did open that Wednesday.

Roseman said the inspections focused on the areas that were damaged during the most recent flooding, but not areas of the building that had problems in the past but were unaffected that weekend.

“There’s adequate space in the school to make sure the children are out of the affected areas and those areas have been closed off,” Whack said. “Safety is our number-one priority, so we made sure that students are not in areas that were impacted.”

One of those areas that initially was unaffected on Sept. 11 is Room 521, where rain poured in from the ceiling last night. That room and the book closet adjacent to it are no longer used by students while new repairs begin on the hardwood floors. According to Roseman, the school is running out of unused space to relocate teachers and classes.

“I think, at least in part, this leak was missed because the District had not done a comprehensive assessment of the roof and the drains in order to figure out the scale and scope of the problems,” Roseman said. “Or if they have, it has not been shared with me or the staff. My recommendation to keep people out of school for another day was to do just that — a comprehensive assessment.”

No central project manager

The issue of when to reoccupy the building was the primary area of disagreement between the union and the District, but it wasn’t the only one.

On the day of the flood, the fifth and sixth floors were strewn with debris and had extensive water damage throughout. Some rooms on the third and fourth floors were also damaged.

These parts of the building sit underneath the portion of the roof where the drains were clogged.

In the fifth-floor hallway at Palumbo, the caved-in plaster ceiling is visible above the drop ceiling. (Photo: Philadelphia Federation of Teachers)

When Roseman initially inspected the school, he made several recommendations on behalf of the union. One was that certain parts of the scope of work be prioritized, such as bringing in dehumidifiers and fans for the rooms occupied by students, and the District agreed.

But when Roseman returned a day later, he found that those things that had been prioritized on paper were not prioritized in reality.

“There were not enough dehumidifiers and air-moving devices,” Roseman said. “The cafeteria, the most critical area, had not had work done.”

Roseman attributed this to the lack of a central project manager in charge of all the work conducted by multiple teams. He said this is something the District started doing on the lead stabilization work, but it is not a standard practice at all work sites.

Once he brought the problems of dehumidifiers and the cafeteria to the attention of the District, he was pleased to see those problems solved on his next inspection. But the site still does not have a central project manager, which he thinks should be standard.

On Roseman’s third inspection, staff pointed to three classrooms on the school’s fourth floor that were damaged but not immediately noticed because they sat under a different portion of the roof. Roseman learned from a teacher who used one of the rooms that they had regular leaks when it rained, but had not flooded to the same extent as the rest of the building on that particular weekend.

These rooms alarmed Roseman because his primary concern was exposure to dust from plaster coated in lead paint. He found dust in the rooms, and the teacher told him it’s a regular occurrence in those rooms — teachers clean it up themselves.

“There was lead paint dust all over the floors and window sills,” Roseman said. “And it had not been part of any original assessment. Every area had supposedly been assessed and given a work scope, but that hadn’t happened here.”

The rooms have since been added to the scope of work. Palumbo was already scheduled for paint and plaster stabilization work as part of the District’s lead abatement project this year. But lead is most damaging to young children, so like other non-elementary schools, Palumbo is still awaiting those repairs.

Roseman said the whole situation could have been prevented by authorizing overtime for the school’s building engineer to check the roof on rainy weekends.

Whack, however, said that the District provides instruction to building engineers to keep the drains clear, and that can and should be done without overtime.