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Casey touts Democratic plan for infrastructure at West Philly school

James Rhoads School needs $15 million in repairs and upgrades; now, $8 million is planned.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (right) chats with State Sen. Vincent Hughes (left) and Rhoads principal Kelly Parker in one of the rooms being refurbished in the West Philadelphia school. (Photo by Lijia Liu)

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey highlighted the Senate Democrats’ proposal to invest $1 trillion in infrastructure on Friday, speaking at James Rhoads Elementary School in West Philadelphia. The plan sets aside $50 billion for school building repairs and construction.

“We believe that by spending $50 billion across the nation to invest in our schools, we’re not only going to improve the physical climate, but we’re going to help advance education itself,” Casey said.

Senate Democrats indicated that funding for the proposal would come from rolling back the Trump administration’s tax cuts, though some are skeptical that this would be possible with a Republican majority in Congress.

Casey, who is running for re-election, also urged Republican lawmakers to devote more resources to improving schools.

“I hope they would join us in investing in our schools so that our kids can literally learn more now and earn more later,” he said.

His remarks come at a time when the School District is conducting a $15.6 million project in 57 District schools to clean up lead, mold, and other toxic materials over the summer.

Danielle Floyd, the District’s chief operating officer, described the importance of having additional funding from the Senate Democrats’ proposal.

“Approval of this proposal,” she said, “would permit the District to accelerate needed capital investments in our schools, most specifically to address our environmental hazards, to start … improvements sooner, and to add additional projects for new construction and major renovations, particularly targeted at the 19 facilities identified with the greatest need in our Facility Conditions Assessment.”

The Facility Condition Assessment report, commissioned by the District, was released in January 2017. It assesses various school facilities and makes recommendations for each one, including refurbishment, closure, or replacement.

After the news conference, Rhoads principal Kelly Parker led Casey on a tour of the classrooms being renovated as part of the District’s early literacy pilot program. The program aims to improve classroom conditions for pre-K to 3rd-grade students. So far, the school has undergone $650,000 worth of construction work.

According to Floyd, $8 million in further repairs for heating system upgrades, window replacements, and classroom modernization efforts are already planned for Rhoads, but $7 million beyond that is required to fully meet the school’s needs.

Floyd anticipates that all of the school’s classroom improvements would be finished by Aug. 27, when the 2018-19 school year begins. Bigger projects, such as window replacements, would take the next two-and-a-half years to finish.

On their tour, Parker and Casey were joined by Pennsylvania State Sen. Vincent Hughes, as well as Joyce Wilkerson and Chris McGinley from the Board of Education.

Inside the classrooms were visible signs of change, including new flooring and windows, TV screens, and large containers of fluorescent light bulbs.

Barbara Johnson, a 3rd-grade teacher, said that construction in her classroom began in mid-June. When asked about the current renovation, Johnson said she was “ecstatic.”

“I’m excited to come back to school,” she said.

In an interview after the tour, Floyd emphasized the District’s commitment to ensuring that Philadelphia’s schools are conducive to learning.

“We want to have a welcoming and safe environment with health hazards eliminated so that students are not distracted by how their space looks,” she said. “We hope to do so by either building new schools or upgrading current schools, and to do this across the District in an equitable and fair way.”

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