IG report: High school construction project exposed Philadelphia students, staff to ‘deplorable conditions’

The botched construction project to move the elite Science Leadership Academy into Benjamin Franklin High School last year was plagued by “a series of critical missteps,” according to a report released Wednesday by the district’s Inspector General.

The errors — including an unrealistic timeline and the decision for Benjamin Franklin students to remain in the building during the renovations — exposed “students, staff, and contractors to deplorable conditions and caused costs to balloon, according to the 124-page report. 

Among the more startling revelations: Some staff members at Ben Franklin were hospitalized for breathing problems as construction dust swirled through the building during the work conducted during the 2018-19 school year. Concerns from staff, including the principal, were ignored. Principal Christine Borelli advised the month before school started in September 2019 that the building was not ready for SLA to move in, but those warnings also were not heeded. Two SLA students with asthma were hospitalized before the building was finally closed. 

“The district failed, at multiple junctures, to appreciate these missteps, heed concerns about the conditions created at the outset and during the construction, and to plan for a contingency in the event that the project could not be completed on time,” read the report.

The district’s Office of the Inspector General reports directly to the Board of Education, which commissioned the probe after the disastrous start for both schools a year ago. Board President Joyce Wilkerson said it was “crucial to have an independent investigation [to] clearly understand what went wrong.” She called the report’s findings “deeply problematic.” 

Superintendent William Hite, who also called for the investigation, reiterated that he “deeply regret[s] how the project unfolded and the significant, negative impact it had on the students and staff of both school communities.” In a briefing for reporters Wednesday, he and Wilkerson said that the district is already implementing many of the report’s recommendations. 

In releasing the report, Hite sent a letter to parents and staff vowing that the district “is fully committed to learning from this experience.”

In addition to exposing people to toxic conditions, the botched work resulted in the temporary relocation of the two schools at the beginning of the last school year and “marred what should have been a stellar achievement” for the district, the report said. 

The report described the renovation as “too ambitious” for the allotted time frame and initial budget of $10 million. Students, staff, and contractors were exposed to unsafe conditions that the district wasn’t equipped to deal with, ultimately increasing the cost of the project to more than $50 million, according to the report.

The report includes 11 recommendations for improvement, including better prequalification for contractors, using construction management firms on major projects, standardizing site inspection, regular monitoring of air quality on construction sites, upgrading technology and software, increasing the staff in its Office of Environmental Management & Services, and improving communication.

“As the report acknowledges, we have already taken numerous actions to improve the way we plan, design, and manage construction projects. We will continue to use the information and insights from this report to help guide our operational improvement efforts and avoid similar mistakes in the future,” Hite said.

Hite noted the report’s finding that the problems started when the district decided not to renew its lease on the Center City office building where SLA had been located since its inception, thus putting on the unrealistic time pressure. The other big mistake, he said, was expecting the Ben Franklin students to be in the building during construction.

“Given the scope of what needed to be done in the building that was not the appropriate way to do that,” Hite said. 

Among the dangers was exposure to asbestos that was disturbed during the renovation of the building, which was built in 1958.

The conclusion of the IG report notes that “it should have been abundantly clear very early into the work at the site...that the building could no longer be safety occupied while also adhering to district and common sense guidelines.” Even if someone wanted to relocate either Ben Franklin or SLA students, “there was nowhere for them to go,” it said. 

One of the changes that Hite said has been made is creating “swing spaces” for students to relocate to while potentially hazardous construction is being done within a school.

Ultimately, in October, Ben Franklin students relocated to what had been Khepera Charter School in North Philadelphia, and SLA students split between the district’s headquarters and rooms in the Rodeph Shalom synagogue, both close to its location at Broad and Spring Garden streets. 

Alarm bells were sounded by many witnesses before and during the work on this project,” the report said. “Nevertheless the warnings went largely unheard or unappreciated.” The district’s IG, Jayme Naberezny, is linked to the city’s Office of Inspector General.

In addition, the report said, “Several project design decisions were made over the concerns of the district’s design and construction staff with apparently little regard for the staff’s expertise.” 

The report is filled with scathing language decrying inadequate capacity and poor decision-making, using words like “frenzied” to describe the actual work and “catastrophic” to warn what will happen if major changes aren’t made.

“The lack of any plan beyond finishing all of the work on the project on time left the schools in incomplete and often dangerous spaces, and forced the district into a frenzied effort to relocate to new locations while construction and environmental work was completed. These difficulties were largely self-inflicted by the district. The district undertook a signature, first-of-its-kind project, with no safety net in case anything went wrong,” the report notes.

Hite deflected the question of why things proceeded as they did — ignoring warnings, pushing an unrealistic deadline, and having no backup plan. He also tried to portray this project as being an anomaly, as the district proceeds with construction in schools all over the city to remove potential dangers, such as loose asbestos, peeling lead paint, and contaminated water. He vowed that the district would learn from the experience. 

But the report called the failures “symptomatic of larger problems associated with renovating and updating the district’s aging physical infrastructure,” where the average building age is 75 years old. And while the report cited lack of financing as an issue, it also highlighted problems with staffing in the district’s Office of Environmental Management & Services. 

While many employees had “commendable dedication,” that was often “greeted by the district with a lack of financial support, resources, adequate compensation, and fulfillment of past promises to make those jobs easier to do. Moving forward, a failure by the district to reorient itself and commit to retaining employees with that type of dedication will have catastrophic long-term consequences. The consultant-based patchwork the district frequently relies on for so many positions has short-term financial savings, but it does not benefit the district’s long-term welfare.” 

It also said that the district did not follow “normal protocols” in its communications with the schools’ principals and others who offered their concerns about the timeline and scope of the project.

In one of the more chilling sections of the report, the IG cites in detail how concerns about potential hazards from the Ben Franklin community and its principal were deflected or ignored.

Borelli, the principal, repeatedly expressed her concerns about construction dust in the building during the 2018-19 school year, and construction staff noted violations, but the problems persisted. 

“The illness and eventual hospitalization of the Ben Franklin staff members was really the culmination of multiple days of violations of the dust management 37 protocols by the contractor with no measurable consequences,” the report noted. 

After the report was released, Chris McGinley, a former school board member, said “I find the report most upsetting, particularly in places where information was clearly withheld from principals and teachers. That should never have happened.”

The IG recounted how SLA principal Chris Lehmann wrote a long email to district officials from the hospital, where his own son, an SLA student, was taken after he got sick.  

“While obviously correlation is not causation, every doctor has said that high levels of dust in the building absolutely could have triggered what we are seeing now,” he wrote. 

Other parents were reporting asthma flares and students “coming home complaining of burning eyes and burning throats, and even a student who has cough variant asthma who was sent home from school and then had several hours of vomiting. Personally, my eyes and throat have been burning every day, and I am starting to feel what feels like a cumulative effect and many students and teachers report the same.”

The building remained open for almost another month before students and staff were relocated.

Lehmann spoke about this at the Board of Education meeting last month at which principals led the charge in urging the district to scrap plans for a “hybrid” opening of school this year and go virtual instead, which it did.  

Jerry Roseman, the environmental watchdog for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and a persistent critic of the district’s handling of building remediation, said flatly that “the kinds of problems seen at Ben Franklin-SLA are systemic and are extremely concerning because of that.” And despite the district’s insistence that they have taken lessons from this experience and are making needed changes, Roseman maintained that “they are going on to this present day.”  

The Ben Franklin co-location project started when the state-dominated School Reform Commission still ran the district, but the problems did not improve after local control was reinstated through the reestablishment of the Board of Education in 2018. Wilkerson, who was chair of the SRC before becoming president of the board, was asked if there would be any consequences for the mishandling of the project. 

She said that the episode would definitely become part of Hite’s annual evaluation, before quickly adding, “together with some great things that are also happening in the district.”