Obama's jobs act could rescue decrepit schools like Furness High

Pushing passage of the American Jobs Act: teachers' union chief Jordan, Furness High junior Brittany Butler, and U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (D., Pa).
Pushing passage of the American Jobs Act: teachers' union chief Jordan, Furness High junior Brittany Butler, and U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (D., Pa).
Posted: October 18, 2011

The roof leaks badly. Parts of the building are shut off because of water damage. There is asbestos contamination on the fourth floor, and chunks of plaster scattered on the beautiful, crumbling second floor of the auditorium.

Furness High, built in 1914, would cost $26 million to repair or $51 million to replace, and that's money the cash-strapped Philadelphia School District doesn't have. While it may land on a list of district buildings slated for closure, Furness' growing academic success means that the school could be around for years to come.

Union and district leaders gathered Monday at Furness with U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (D., Pa.) to tout the American Jobs Act, which President Obama has said would pump $944 million into Pennsylvania school-modernization projects. Of that, $396 million would go to Philadelphia school projects.

"When you look at buildings like this, and we're supposed to compete globally, I think it's kind of shameful," said Lori Shorr, Mayor Nutter's education secretary and a newly appointed executive adviser to the district. "Without some infusion of funding from the American Jobs Act, it's going to be very difficult for this district and this city to make education its number-one priority and to be successful."

In addition to providing school-modernization money, Obama's jobs bill would provide funds to hire and keep teachers, police officers, and firefighters.

The legislation is in trouble. The Senate defeated it last week, a move that Brady called "an absolute outrage."

Furness, on Third Street in South Philadelphia, is not handicapped-accessible. Leaders gathered Monday in a science lab with no gas access or running water; its walls are badly crumbled despite having been repaired recently.

And that's not the worst of it, said Brittany Butler, a junior at the school. "This isn't the only place where the wall is peeling."

The average Philadelphia School District building is 61 years old; 26 schools are more than 100 years old. The oldest district school, Francis Scott Key Elementary, was built in 1889.

Associate superintendent Penny Nixon said 324 district buildings needed $1.5 billion in renovations and repairs.

The district had to cut more than $629 million from its budget this year to make ends meet. Next year is looking "challenging," too, said Shorr.

"We're not seeing the taxes come back the way that we thought we were going to see," she said, "and we have to have an infusion of some - I'll just say it - cash."

Furness, whose building population of 600 is well below capacity, may be on the chopping block as the district seeks to shed 70,000 excess seats. Recommendations of school closings, consolidations, and other major changes are due late this month or early next month, Nixon said.

But Butler beseeched officials to consider the school's successes when deciding whether to close it. Under principal Timothy McKenna, the school has raised academics, decreased violence, and significantly improved climate.

"Although the building is in bad condition, it is a special place for us," said Butler. "Furness should not be up for closing."

Nijmie Dzurinko, executive director of the youth-organizing group Philadelphia Student Union, agreed.

"It seems like this is the kind of school the district should be trying to replicate," Dzurinko said, "not shutting down."

Nixon said officials would take into consideration things other than building condition when making a list of recommended closures.

"It's not just based on the facilities' needs," said the associate superintendent. "We're weighing the academic progress as well."


Contact staff writer Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146, kgraham@phillynews.com, or @newskag on Twitter. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at www.philly.com/schoolfiles.

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