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Ceilings collapse at Palumbo after water builds up on roof

Students were dismissed a little after noon. The next steps have not been determined.

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

Teachers and students from Academy at Palumbo arrived at school Tuesday morning to find ceilings on the floor, collapsed after a massive buildup of water on the school’s flat roof leaked down into the building over the weekend. The ceilings couldn’t take the weight.

One member of the school’s staff described showing up to “flooding” on the upper floors and in the stairwells. Students had to be relocated to drier portions of the building and were sent home around noon.

District workers and staff from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers rushed to the school to diagnose the problem.

“Our facilities team is working on it,” said District spokesman Lee Whack. “Students have been relocated to the auditorium and are safe. Our facilities team controlled the collapse in order to fully address the issue. A letter will be sent home to parents explaining what happened and how we are dealing with it.”

Jerry Roseman, the PFT’s environmental scientist, inspected the school with members of the District’s facilities office. When the Notebook reached out to him, he described the water on the roof as an “Olympic-size swimming pool.”

“The roof drains and gutter system were clogged, causing an enormous amount of water to accumulate on the flat roof that then poured into the building at some point over the weekend,” Roseman said. “It caused ceilings to collapse in a few areas, resulting in several inches of standing water in some locations and major damage to other parts of the building.”

The amount of water caused some staff at the school to suspect that the entire roof had collapsed, given the roof’s history of major leaks in the past.

Palumbo, located at 11th and Catharine Streets, is a special-admission high school located in a building that opened in 1930 as an elementary school and then became a junior high.

In 2015, the District conducted a Facility Condition Assessment where consultants examined every school and every system in each building. Palumbo’s roof was given a grade indicating that it needed major repairs, but did not yet need to be entirely replaced.

At the time, repairs were estimated to cost $500,000, while replacing the roof would have cost $1.5 million.

The water has also damaged other areas of the school not previously in need of major repairs, such as paint and plaster. Roseman is also concerned that excess humidity may cause mold growth.

The District is in the process of making a decision on how to proceed at the school.

PFT president Jerry Jordan released a statement calling on the state and federal governments to fund improvements to aging school infrastructure. The General Assembly created a program called PlanCon to upgrade school buildings, but hasn’t funded it. The estimated total for repairs and upgrades to all Philadelphia school buildings is close to $5 billion.

School opened before Labor Day for the first time in history, but were forced to close early due to excessive heat and inadequate air conditioning for much of the first two weeks.

“These types of incidents are made sadder by the fact that they are completely avoidable,” Jordan said. While working to repair the damage at Palumbo, “we must also continue to pressure our elected officials to take the long view, and pass budgets that address the schools, streets and public spaces used by our communities and schoolchildren.”

The Notebook will continue to monitor the situation. Parents and community members with something to share can email gregw@thenotebook.org.