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Harsh reality awaits community


City schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas says the condition of School 16 on Post Avenue is so bad that students and staff should move to Freddie Thomas High School this coming year. And he won't promise that School 16 will reopen. Ever.

"We have an emergency in that school," he says.

The problems with the building are happening faster than they can be fixed, Vargas says. They range from a heating system that overheats the building — windows are often left open during the winter — to major electrical problems.

The building, which was constructed in 1911, is a wood frame structure with a brick facade. The school was included in early discussions on the district's facilities modernization program, but was dropped from the project's first phase. FMP is a massive project to renovate and modernize city schools.

Vargas says School 16 administrators have tried to keep up with required maintenance, but the problems have become cost-prohibitive to fix. Bringing the building up to a functional standard would cost $6 million or more, he says.

The crisis at School 16 is part of a larger problem involving the district's surplus space, Vargas says. The district's buildings were intended to accommodate more than 40,000 students. But the student population will drop below 30,000 by the fall, he says.

"What I'm planning to do is have a comprehensive look at the entire inventory," Vargas says. "If we spend money on surplus space, you end up shortchanging students. We can't spend money on space we don't need and at the same time tell parents and students we can't afford to provide sports, music, and arts."

A report on the district's building space due sometime this fall could serve as a starting point for a community-wide discussion on the second phase of the $1.2 billion facilities modernization program. Closing schools is a traumatic event for most communities, and Vargas says he wants to have that discussion in a way that looks at the district's neighborhoods, transportation costs, and school choice program.

"No superintendent, certainly not this one, wants to find himself in what I'm in," Vargas says. "And that's to tell the community that there is a harsh reality here."

The school board will vote on a plan for School 16 on Thursday, July 26. The meeting is at 6:30 p.m. at the district's central office, 131 West Broad Street.