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Philly controller: 8 empty schools threaten safety

By Kathy Matheson

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 6 2011 1:25 p.m. MST

In this Aug. 3, 2011 photo, young people watch as firefighters battle a blaze at the abandoned Edison High School building in Philadelphia. In a report that was spurred by the fire that destroyed the long-vacant school in August, the city controller in Philadelphia said on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2011, eight vacant schools pose a threat to public safety, and that at least one should be demolished immediately.

Matt Rourke, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

PHILADELPHIA — Eight vacant schools where investigators found evidence of drug use and vandalism pose a threat to public safety, and at least one should be demolished immediately because of severe structural issues, city Controller Alan Butkovitz said Tuesday.

A new report released by the controller's office urged school officials to secure the properties and establish a plan to address the problems. The district plans to shutter nine more schools in the coming years because of low enrollment.

"Our current review found that the school district continues to allow the majority of its vacant buildings to become neighborhood eyesores and safety hazards," Butkovitz said at a news conference.

District spokesman Fernando Gallard said school officials "clearly understand the need for these buildings to be safe and sealed" while looking for buyers or new uses. But vigilance is expensive, he said, and the cash-strapped system is still trying to close a $629 million budget gap that has already forced layoffs and program cuts.

"The priority for us right now is the open buildings," Gallard said.

The controller's report was spurred by a fire that destroyed the long-vacant Edison High School in August. The district had just sold the property a month before to a private developer, but it had sat vacant for more than a decade.

Butkovitz said his office had recommended the building be razed in 2008.

"It was a disaster waiting to happen, and unfortunately, it did happen," Butkovitz said.

Fearing another catastrophe at the "dilapidated" former Roberto Clemente Middle School, Butkovitz on Tuesday recommended its demolition as well, citing damaged masonry and broken windows.

The building, which hasn't had students in 13 years, would cost about $800,000 to take down, the report said. Butkovitz estimated the cost for demolishing all eight schools at $5.1 million.

Investigators who visited Clemente and the seven other schools also documented unsanitary conditions such as syringes, used condoms, human waste and piles of trash littering the properties. They also noted police reports of criminal activity at the sites, including theft and vandalism.

Butkovitz said school officials must address these issues before emptying any other schools. Last month, the district proposed closing nine schools and selling four vacant buildings to address excess capacity.

However, none of the four properties slated for sale was among those examined in the controller's report. Butkovitz spokesman Brian Dries said investigators weren't told of those sites when they asked the district for a list of vacant buildings.

Gallard said the district plans to review its policies and procedures for closing buildings as part of its new facilities master plan. The controller's report will be part of that discussion, he said.

Sales of surplus property over the past six years have brought $26 million into district coffers, according to Danielle Floyd, the district's deputy for strategic initiatives.

Kathy Matheson can be reached at www.twitter.com/kmatheson.

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