A storied Harrisburg high school faces the wrecking ball | Thursday Morning Coffee

News of the planned demolition of William Penn High School comes amidst a broader debate on how Pa. will pay for repairs for schools statewide

By: - June 29, 2023 7:19 am
William Penn High School in Harrisburg, Pa. (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek).

William Penn High School in Harrisburg, Pa. (Capital-Star photo).

If you’ve ever driven through Harrisburg’s picturesque Italian Lake neighborhood, just a few blocks from the banks of the Susquehanna River, you’ve probably gotten a good look at the deteriorating, Neo-Classical façade of the long vacant William Penn High School and wondered what fate held in store for it.

On Tuesday, the Capital City’s school district finally made up its mind: The building, built in 1926, will face the wrecking ball, possibly as soon as August, TheBurg, a magazine that covers Harrisburg, reported.

“It does hurt that this decision had to be made,” school board member Danielle Robinson said, according to TheBurg. “We’ve done everything to try to figure out how to save this building but realistically it just can’t be done.”

The district’s receiver, Dr. Lori Suski, approved a $6.8 million proposal from the Gordian Group, a New York-based firm, to undertake the work, which is expected to take around a year to complete.

That’s far less than the estimates, some as high as $90 million, that district officials had received to renovate the building, which is scarred by graffiti and has suffered fires and break-ins in recent years, TheBurg reported.

The district plans to hold public meetings this fall as it decides what to do with the site, the magazine reported.

Harrisburg’s decision comes amidst a broader policy debate at the state Capitol on how the commonwealth will paid for the untold cost of repairing and renovating school buildings from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia.

A view of William Penn High School in Harrisburg, Pa. (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek).
A view of William Penn High School in Harrisburg, Pa. (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek).

Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court President Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer’s February ruling declaring the state’s education funding system unconstitutional painted a vivid picture — in words and photographs — of the challenges facing educators as they toil in a historically underfunded system, the Capital-Star’s Cassie Miller reported last week.

Across its sprawling 786-pagesCohn Jubelirer’s ruling devoted nearly 10 pages to the condition of school facilities throughout the state.

The appellate court judge also noted testimony from the plaintiffs in the case, who described leaking roofs, a lack of heating and air conditioning, and the need for mold and asbestos abatement, Miller reported, as part of the Capital-Star’s ‘Funding the 500‘ series.

But lawmakers and education leaders alike are still trying to get their arms around how much it will cost to make those repairs — a lack of concrete information hasn’t helped.

“Everyone seems to agree that we have a serious problem here, but as of yet no one has been able to tell me how big the problem is,” Senate Education Committee Chairperson David Argall, R-Schuylkill, said during a recent hearing, adding that he didn’t know how the state could collect data on the condition of school facilities without the use of  “a mandate with teeth.”

Dr. Daniel McGarry, superintendent of Upper Darby School District in Delaware County, told lawmakers at the same hearing that there is currently no statewide, running list of facility needs at Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts.

And without that, there is no way of knowing the full extent of the problem, and the amount of money that would be needed to adequately address it.

“How are we supposed to make intelligent choices if we don’t know the depth of the problem?” McGarry asked.

One solution is restarting a state program colloquially known as “PlanCon,” which allows districts to apply for partial reimbursement from the state for the cost of construction projects. The program has been on hold since 2016, Miller reported.

Sen. Tim Kearney, D-Delaware, who also serves on the Senate Education Committee, announced in January that he would reintroduce legislation to “restart” the program.

Lawmakers also are weighing various ways to help districts update and modernize their facilities, Miller reported.

A historical marker outside William Penn High School in Harrisburg, Pa. (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek).
A historical marker outside William Penn High School in Harrisburg, Pa. (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek).

In Harrisburg this week, residents and William Penn graduates expressed their regret that the aging building will have to fall.

“I’m upset that they allowed the building to deteriorate,” Elle Richard, a 1966 William Penn graduate said, according to theBurg. “It shouldn’t have gone this far. It’s sad because it seemed so much like home.”

David Morrison, of the Historic Harrisburg Association, said that he wished the building could have been repurposed, but he acknowledged “that moment, sadly, appears to be long gone.”

Suski, the district’s receiver, recognized the magnitude of the loss, but said the cost of maintaining the empty building was too high.

“We have gone through extensive dialogue about this property,” Suski said, according to TheBurg. “The building was improperly shuttered years ago, and I agree with the residents that it’s a travesty. But we need to look at how best to use our resources. It doesn’t really appear that there is any other direction to go than to proceed with the demolition.”

During his first budget address in March, Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro told a joint session of the state House and Senate that his $44.4 billion proposal represented a chance to really invest in schools.

“We must approach this responsibility with hope and ambition – because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us to do right by our kids,” Shapiro said. “Our students should have world-class facilities that are safe and healthy, and this budget is an initial investment to get us there.”

Lawmakers and the administration have until midnight on Friday to reach a deal on the spending plan for the new fiscal year that starts on July 1.


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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.