Even as the Philadelphia School District grapples with a high-profile financial crisis, its leaders must also fight a quieter, more insidious, and potentially far more expensive problem: maintaining its aging portfolio of more than 200 schools.
With an average age of 63, the buildings are beset with issues familiar to any owner of an old house: mold, lead paint, asbestos - all health hazards, especially for children.
Officials recently estimated it would cost $4 billion to rid every structure of problems, from replacing roofs to sealing walls that cannot keep out water.
The district says it would never knowingly imperil the health of any of its 131,000 students. "We wouldn't allow anyone to enter a location that is unsafe," spokesman Fernando Gallard said.
The top health expert for the teachers' union, who has been inspecting schools with his district counterparts for nearly three decades, disagrees.
"When we find problems with lead paint, mold, and major roof and piping-system leaks, those are serious," Jerry Roseman said. "Those should be taken care of, and followed up on within a few days or a week, and often they're not."
District officials say there is no evidence that facilities have caused significant health injuries. Even so, the union says that hazards within buildings may be causing both immediate respiratory problems - and even more serious harms that will take years to emerge.
Officials from the union's health and welfare fund shared photographs of potential hazards in schools with The Inquirer. The newspaper forwarded the photos to Bruce Lanphear, a professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, and an expert on environmental health risks to children.
"These photos indicate chronic, long-standing problems that are due to water damage and inadequate maintenance," Lanphear said. "These are serious deficiencies and most likely health hazards."
He added: "It is sad that the schools in one of the leading cities in the United States have been allowed to deteriorate to this level."
The Inquirer also shared photos with school officials. Their detailed response stressed that in each instance, repairs had either been completed or are scheduled.
In interviews, Francine Locke, environmental director for the district, said officials take building hazards seriously.
"We do proactive inspections every day, all the time," Locke said.
"The environmental program we have is among the best in the nation," she added.
Philadelphia is not the only local school system facing such challenges. Cheltenham officials recently told parents in the suburban district that they might close a middle school because of widespread mold. The cost to replace the school is put at $52 million.
In Philadelphia, the problems are so severe that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health joined with the district and union two years ago to develop a computerized tool for assessing mold and dampness. So far the project's experts have examined 183 buildings, Locke said.
Without constant vigilance, mold can trigger allergies and asthma, and peeling lead paint can damage a child's lifelong IQ, according to numerous health studies. Asbestos is a well-known carcinogen.
A study last year in the Journal of Asthma found that Philadelphia children suffered from asthma at three times the national average - a quarter had the chronic and potentially fatal condition.
Daniel Taylor, head of community pediatrics and child advocacy at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children, said mold is a common and troubling trigger for his patients' asthma.
Because mold spreads spores into the air, it can be difficult to track. "Unless there is an obvious source, the cause and effect isn't always there," Taylor said.
Experts say school buildings are of particular concern; hours in class mean increased exposure time, especially for children whose bodies are still developing.
Locke said the district was well aware of the dangers posed by mold.
"Mold is a huge priority for us," she said. "We don't leave mold present."
Mold on the violins
In response to complaints at Lowell, district officials say they worked diligently this summer to get the school in shape to safely receive teachers and students.
Schlein Kaufman, 39, a prekindergarten teacher, said problems persist.
"If you're sending your child to school, you're in the belief that you're sending them to a safe, caring environment," she said. "You don't go into the school looking for mold. You go in to talk to the teachers about academics."
While cautious about drawing a direct link between students' health problems and her building, Schlein Kaufman said she was especially concerned because so many of her youngsters arrive at school with asthma.
Vanda Carrier, 59, another Lowell teacher, blames the building for her need for allergy shots.
"My symptoms are only from September until June," she said.
District records contain many complaints about the building and its more modern annex: mold on walls and pipes, water-damaged tiles in classroom ceilings, flaking paint and plaster.
In worst-case situations, students are at risk of direct contact with mold - as when it was found on musical instruments.
At Lowell, one report said in January, mold damaged "11 tambourines and drums." The district says it has restored those instruments.
Last year, mold attacked instruments at Shawmont elementary in Roxborough, a school renowned for its music program. Inspectors found mold on pianos, violins, bassoons, clarinets, flutes, French horns, oboes, trombones, trumpets, and tubas.
"It was all over the music suite. Everywhere," said Janet McHale, president of Shawmont's Home and School Association. "The teachers discovered this and said: 'This is a problem. Kids can't be inhaling this stuff.' "
She said the district moved swiftly to restore the instruments and dry out the room. The cleanup cost: $60,000.
Separately, in June, Shawmont received a rare donation: $30,000 for new instruments from the Hamels Foundation, created by Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels and his wife, Heidi.
Then there was Shawmont's gym, closed May 20 because of "damp/musty odors and a higher than normal amount of students having asthma attacks while in the gym," records show.
The culprit? Leaks in 90-year-old pipes under the floor. The district left the pipes in place, but reopened the gym in October after installing a water-resistant temporary floor.
Meanwhile, the mold on Shawmont's instruments came back. A Sept. 12 district report on Shawmont said, "Mold growth was observed on the string instruments . . . and piano."
The damaged instruments - which did not include those from the Hamelses - were cleaned once again.
A damaged dance studio
Not long after she started teaching dance this fall at Austin Meehan Middle in Mayfair, Cristina Elena Guzman, 36, noticed a strange smell in the dance studio.
She figured it was due to the room's recent renovation. When water started leaking from the sink, she coped with that, too.
Still, she said, "No matter how many times I cleaned it, there was always a puddle."
In time, school officials realized the fluid was sewage - sewage that had generated hidden mold behind the studio wall.
In the end, the mold ruined the room. Guzman says it also left her ill.
Guzman was in the room for three weeks before workers found the mold and relocated her. By the second week, she was wheezy and had lost her voice. She went to a hospital emergency room.
"There was one night I just couldn't breathe," she said. "I felt like I had asthma and I don't. I had a fever. I was laying down. I felt very sick. The doctor said I had upper respiratory problems."
The room remains closed while crews rip out 600 square feet of drywall and treat the mold.
"I get the dream job that I wanted and I'm getting sick," Guzman said. "That frustrates me the most. . . . I just want to be healthy."
In West Philadelphia's Overbrook High, the problem has been a legion of leaks. The school, nicknamed the Castle on the Hill and built when Calvin Coolidge was president, has seen better times.
Inspections this summer turned up peeling paint and plaster damage in classrooms, and stairwell walls blistered by invading moisture.
Photos taken in July by the teachers' union showed sections of classroom ceilings had tumbled to the floor, spreading debris so old that the paint likely contained lead.
The district fixed the most obvious problems, stabilizing loose paint and patching plaster.
In two Overbrook classrooms, inspectors found so much damage to asbestos insulation on pipes that they deemed the pipes an "imminent hazard." Officials say those spots have been repaired.
Still, the district estimates that Overbrook and its leaky roof need $32 million in overall repairs.
The 'Dirty Dozen'
This summer, while the district was sending out layoff notices and pleading with politicians for enough money to start fall classes on time, it was also in a race to fix many schools, including some highlighted by union officials as having long-term, unaddressed problems.
Among them were six elementary schools, two middle schools, Overbrook, and three other high schools. The union nicknamed them the "Dirty Dozen."
The problems go far beyond a dozen schools. An Inquirer analysis of district data for the last four years identified about 2,500 repair orders related to moisture damage, including hundreds calling for mold removal.
The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers says it has spent $1.7 million since 2000 on joint inspections with the district.
In recent years, those inspections have identified about 50 schools in need of major repairs, mostly to fix porous roofs and walls.
Roseman, the teachers' union health expert, contended the district had been far too slow in making many of those repairs. He says root causes have gone unaddressed.
Once again, any homeowner can relate: Roseman reckons the district would end up with substantial savings if it fixed up its schools once and for all.
But that would cost millions, even billions, that the district does not have.
Locke disputed Roseman's critique.
"For all 50 [buildings], the health and safety of building occupants is being addressed immediately," she said. "The bigger-picture stuff - that takes time and money to do."
The district has been downsizing its real estate holdings, in line with its steady decline in enrollment. It has closed 32 schools in the last two years, all of which are now up for sale.
Nonetheless, even routine maintenance is an increasing challenge, says George Ricchezza, president of the union that represents district maintenance workers.
Three years ago, the district employed 690 people to maintain schools and handle some repairs. Attrition has reduced that workforce to 540.
Gallard, the district spokesman, said the system could accelerate repairs and hire more maintenance workers - if labor would only make greater contract concessions. "We need the money," he said. "We don't have the money."
As of Nov. 1, records show, there were 1,440 pending repair orders for environmental health problems in the schools, including more than 100 still unaddressed for up to two years. By far, the most common report: "mold/moisture."
Peeling paint, too, "is in literally thousands of individual areas," Roseman said. "Even when documented as a maintenance work order, peeling lead paint is often left in place for months and years."
A worried teacher
At Austin Meehan, dance teacher Guzman says she expects to be back in her studio soon, once the mold repairs are complete.
She is uneasy about her return.
"In two weeks they want me back in that room," she said. "That's what I'm scared of."
BY THE NUMBERS
The cost to rid every School District building of problems.
Estimated cost of fixing Overbrook High's leaky roof
and other problems.
Average age of the district's more than 200 buildings.
Number of people employed
to maintain schools and handle repairs three years ago.
Number of maintenance and repair people now employed.