Calling Ben Franklin situation a ‘watershed moment,’ school board chair says leaders must do better

“We significantly underestimated the challenges of maintaining a healthy learning environment. … I offer my sincerest apologies,” the superintendent said.

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

With Ben Franklin High School and Science Leadership Academy students finally on the way to their new homes, Board of Education chair Joyce Wilkerson says it’s time for the entire School District of Philadelphia leadership team to re-examine how it makes decisions, manages projects, and communicates with school communities.

“We can’t have a breakdown like this again. What can we do better?” said Wilkerson, after Thursday’s meeting of the board’s Finance and Facilities Committee.

Wilkerson acknowledged that the responsibility for the Ben Franklin debacle falls heaviest on Superintendent William Hite, whose administration hatched the co-location plan and has been working on it for two years.

“This happened on his watch. He’s accountable,” said Wilkerson of Hite, who has acknowledged making numerous missteps during the process, including disregarding warnings and complaints from Ben Franklin staff and failing to develop contingency plans in case things went wrong.

Construction to prepare for the co-location of the two schools in the 50-year-old Ben Franklin building, 550 N. Broad St., dislodged some asbestos, causing fears that dangerous airborne fibers from the widely used insulation material could compromise the health of staff and students. About 1,000 students in the two schools will have missed 11 days of school by Monday, when they will show up at their new sites, and they will not return to the Ben Franklin building, where the renovations cost $37 million, until after winter break.

New temporary homes

The relocation of Ben Franklin students to the former Khepera Charter School, 926 Sedgley Ave., and of the SLA students in part to a nearby synagogue will cost nearly $300,000 in rent. The SLA students will split between Rodeph Shalom, 615 N. Broad St., and District headquarters, 440 N. Broad St.

Asked whether Hite’s job was secure, Wilkerson said that the Ben Franklin fiasco was a warning to everyone in District leadership, including the board: Get better, fast.

“All of us, everybody, administration, board, we’re all reflecting on what happened. We have to do a better job,” she said. “This is one of those watershed moments. … All of us feel we’ve failed in some ways.”

Improving the District’s construction-related policies and practices is particularly important now, she said, because the District is preparing to borrow millions for new capital projects.

“We’re talking about bringing in in excess of half a billion dollars,” she said. “We’re going to put some guidelines in place.”

At his announcement of the new school sites, Hite repeated his apologies, saying that he and his staff can’t fall into the trap of minimizing community input in order to get things done quickly.

“One thing we learned – we tend to put our heads down,” said Hite, pledging to do better at both listening to stakeholders and providing feedback. He also noted that the Ben Franklin project exposed a range of administrative practices that have to be improved, including planning, project management, and contracting.

“We significantly underestimated the challenges of maintaining a healthy learning environment. … I offer my sincerest apologies,” said Hite.

Parents and school staff at Thursday’s events said Hite and his team deserve credit for abandoning their initial, highly unpopular relocation plans and allowing an impromptu community task force to come up with alternatives. SLA parent and task force member Leslie Marant said that once the group was assembled, Hite’s staff did an excellent job of helping members explore options and develop ideas.

“They kept us on track, even when things got emotional,” said Marant. “Whenever we had questions, they ran it down, everything.”

But the big lesson for Hite, Marant said, is that the Ben Franklin task force should have been created long ago.

“To be a better superintendent, he needs to listen to his school communities’ input early,” she said. “In just a few days, we came up with a plan that they could have had 18 months ago.”

Board to Hite: Step it up

Although Thursday’s announcement set the displaced Ben Franklin and SLA students on their way to new schools, board members used the monthly Finance and Facilities Committee meeting later that afternoon to press Hite on how similar debacles will be avoided in the future.

Like Wilkerson, committee chair Lee Huang said the Ben Franklin episode left him with “considerable” concerns. “We want to say that our thoughts are with the [two schools’] teachers and staff and communities,” Huang said as he opened the meetings. “We all need to do better. This process has uncovered numerous challenges.”

He then asked Hite, “What steps can you take to make sure that this will never happen again?”

Hite responded with a long list of administrative changes and adjustments that he said will help the District see problems coming sooner and solve them faster.

High on the list: improved communication between school communities and District staff.

“When we involve more stakeholders, we come up with better solutions,” Hite said.

Such stakeholder teams should be created not just for construction projects, Hite said, but also for other District initiatives, such as the newly launched strategic planning process known as the Comprehensive School Planning Review (CSPR). The district “absolutely” has to involve stakeholders in CSPR, Hite said.

The superintendent also proposed:

  • Including a communications budget for all major capital projects, to handle community outreach and project updates.
  • Establish permanent “swing spaces” in underused buildings that can receive any students displaced by construction, power outages and other issues.
  • Improve contracts to include penalties for overruns and other problems.
  • Identify potential asbestos issues in all upcoming projects and budget accordingly.
  • Improve project management, either by adding staff or “outside resources.” Currently, a single staffer manages more than 30 construction projects.

Hite also pledged to expand the focus of the existing Lead Paint Abatement Task Force to include asbestos.

Gratitude for task force

Staff and parents at the committee meeting praised the work of the impromptu Ben Franklin task force and thanked the District for allowing it to contribute.

“These last few days with the task force are the first time I’ve genuinely felt heard,” said SLA teacher and District parent Erin Giorgio.

Nonetheless, the whole affair was “an incredibly stressful experience that never should have happened and should never happen again,” Giorgio said. The last few weeks were particularly grueling, she said, as teachers and students were forced to rely on the media for updates.

“The lack of communication these last few days has been the thing that almost broke me,” said Giorgio.

Board member Christopher McGinley took a moment at the committee meeting to praise the staff and school communities for helping make the best of what had become a tumultuous process.

“They’re people with integrity,” he said. “I don’t know where we’d be if they hadn’t pitched in at both schools.”

And Wilkerson said she was surprised to find out just how thin the District’s capacity for project management is.

“I had not realized that we were running 30-some [construction] sites with just one [project] manager,” she said. “Saving money at the expense of oversight … you pay a huge price for that.”

Wilkerson pledged to hold Hite accountable for making good on his proposed changes – and to hold the board accountable for its own duties. Hite’s plans for schools won’t go anywhere, she said, if the board doesn’t get those schools the resources they need.

“Our role is to hold the superintendent accountable. And we have an increasing role to make sure the solutions are put in place,” she said. “If we don’t budget for the solutions, we’re not going to see change. … We’ve got to learn that if we have a wonderful project, we’ve got to deliver.”