This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
City Councilwoman Helen Gym has introduced legislation mandating that the Philadelphia School District have enough working water fountains per school building to comply with city plumbing codes. That means one water fountain per 100 students, and a working fountain on each floor. Students who testified at a roundtable called by Council to discuss conditions in their schools repeatedly brought up water fountains, saying that they were unappealing or unusable and that often their only option was bottled water. In town hall sessions convened in neighborhoods around the city, some students also said that athletes got dehydrated due to non-operational water sources. Gym said that data she requested from the District showed that some schools had “shockingly” few water fountains, although officials later said figures had been transposed and they were reviewing the situation. “After Councilwoman Gym sent out the press release, we discovered we made a mistake,” said District spokesman Fernando Gallard. For instance, the original spreadsheet showed that there was only one working water fountain in each of three schools with a total of 2400 students. Gallard said that after Gym cited those figures, the District realized that numbers had been transposed and that they were in error. The data should have said that one fountain in each school was not working. That error “called into question all of the data,” Gallard said. Based on the original numbers submitted by the District, Gym’s office had calculated that 15 percent of the fountains were not working. Gallard acknowledged that there is a real problem, particularly in old buildings, of water fountains being fine, but cosmetically unappealing to students. “We know there are situations where the water fountains don’t look the most desirable, and we are trying to deal with that,” he said. He said the District’s policy is to have all water fountains operational at the beginning of the school year as part of a facilities checklist, but that they deteriorate with use. “Things start breaking down, either through mechanics or vandalism, and we have a hard time keeping up with the maintenance,” he said. “It’s a challenge.” Gym said that the District took action on the water fountains only after pressure from members of the community. “The School District water fountain inventory took place after students and community members organized and demanded action,” she said. “Access to drinking water for all children is a human right — and this bill will help ensure that the District honors and fulfills this moral responsibility.”