Wolf to give $7.6 million toward $15.6 million school cleanup

Advocates worry that the work will be done too hastily and perhaps not up to standard.

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

Gov. Wolf came to Philadelphia on Friday to announce that the state will invest $7.6 million toward a $15.6 million emergency cleanup over the summer to remove asbestos, lead, mold and other environmental hazards from 57 District schools.

He was joined by several Philadelphia legislators, led by State Sen. Vincent Hughes, who pushed for a more aggressive response to the unfolding safety and health crisis in city schools, much of it the result of the District’s inability to keep up with the deteriorating condition of its aging buildings. Mayor Kenney and Council members Derek Green and Cindy Bass were also present for the announcement, held at Roosevelt Elementary School in Germantown.

“The children of Philadelphia deserve clean and healthy classrooms,” Wolf said. “Their teachers deserve healthy workplaces, and parents deserve to feel confident that when they send their children to school in those buildings, they are going to be free of danger.”

While congratulating each other for taking action, the officials also thanked the media for drawing focused attention to the issue. They were referring to an investigation by the Inquirer, whose dramatic presentation of toxic hazards in school buildings – complete with its own onsite testing to evaluate the effectiveness of cleanup efforts – finally spurred a mass response.

“I want to thank the press. … It was good reporting, good public investigative reporting, that put a light and a face to a problem that has been around for a long time now,” said Hughes. “And you know how the guy at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. takes a shot at the press, right? This is real reporting and real press and real coverage and real conversation, and we need to thank them for that.”

Wolf, Hughes, and others also noted that this is only a first step. Two years ago, the District released a Facilities Condition Assessment that detailed problems in each of its schools and estimated that it would cost $4.5 billion to repair, renovate, upgrade, and modernize its more than 300 buildings.

Since that assessment came out, some city officials took notice. The Notebook wrote several stories in late 2017 and early 2018 on the District’s effort to cope with the problem. Parents and other activists formed the Philly Healthy Schools Initiative to draw attention to school environmental conditions, and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ dogged environmental consultant, Jerry Roseman, stepped up his ongoing efforts to publicize hazards and monitor the District’s remediation efforts.

The District’s Chief Operations Officer Danielle Floyd said the request-for-proposals for the summer project had already been sent out and the contracts would be awarded July 3 so work can begin quickly. Schools open Aug. 27.

She said there would be biweekly updates on social media “to share on progress so that school communities are aware of the projects taking place at their schools.”

But Roseman and the advocates in the Healthy Schools Initiative are not entirely satisfied that the District has things under control, and they even suggested that the summer project would be completed in a haphazard fashion that could make things worse.

“As the District fast-tracked doing this work … the preliminary data shows that the District is not following best practices,” said a statement from the initiative. It cited inadequate asbestos-removal procedures, inadequate testing procedures that will mask continuing threats, and asbestos fiber exposures inside and outside contained work areas.

“Haste makes waste,” the statement said. “And that cannot be an option when it comes to dealing with pollutants that can cause cancer and result in learning disorders.”

Roseman and David Masur, spokesman for the Healthy Schools Initiative, said that the District has not kept in steady communication with the advocates or the school communities, something that Floyd denied.

“The proposal for intensive summer work came from us, from me and from the [healthy schools] coalition,” said Roseman, saying that they had worked with Sen. Hughes on the project.

Still, the 40 schools due for lead abatement in the summer program “is inadequate,” said Roseman in an interview after the press conference. He and Masur said they still don’t know how the 57 schools were prioritized. They said that they had documented asbestos exposure and testing concerns at three elementary schools – Mifflin, Farrell, and Steel – that are not slated for summer cleanup.

Floyd said that she has been meeting regularly with Roseman, Masur, and others, and that, in fact, a meeting was scheduled for that afternoon.

“I think the problem is that the issues are so extensive that what is required is serious planning and a very critical look, and that necessarily requires people other than District leadership and management [to be involved],” Roseman said. “They can’t do that on their own. They shouldn’t be expected to and they can’t.”

The $7.6 million in state money to do the summer cleanup will be in the form of a direct grant, with money taken from the budgets of the state Department of Education and the Department of Human Services, Wolf said.

The press conference was held at Roosevelt Elementary School on Washington Lane in Germantown, a vintage 1924 building with peeling lead paint and other hazards that were visible to the government officials and others who attended. The school started out as a junior high school, and over its history was converted to a middle school and then a K-8 school.

The building, built to hold more than 1,000 students, had an enrollment of 522 this school year. It is slated for a $7.8 million makeover and modernization that will include paint stabilization, modernization of K-2 and autistic support classrooms, and improvements to the library, cafeteria, hallways, and the outdoor playground.

During the mass school closings in 2013, the original plan for Roosevelt was to locate a citywide military high school there, moving students from the two that already existed at Leeds, in Mount Airy, and Elverson, in North Philadelphia.

But then the District decided instead to close nearby Fulton Elementary and Germantown High School, both of which now stand vacant, and Roosevelt was converted into a K-8 school. Elverson remains a military academy, and the Leeds building now houses Hill-Freedman World Academy.

The press conference was attended by several of the new Board of Education members, who take control of District governance on Sunday, and by outgoing School Reform Commission Chair Estelle Richman.

Joyce Wilkerson, a former SRC chair who will sit on the new school board, said that in light of the increased attention to the cost of fixing school buildings, shifting demographics, and charter school growth, she hopes to have a “fuller conversation of the direction of the capital program for the District.”

In a theme repeated by Wolf, Hughes, and Kenney, the bottom line is for children in all zip codes and all school districts to have a quality education and the opportunity to reach their potential.

Wolf said, in a bit of news, that he favors applying a fair funding formula adopted by the legislature in 2015 to all state aid, not just new dollars as is the case now. Doing that would result in a $331 million annually in additional state aid to Philadelphia. But it would also shift resources in a way that would cause other school districts, especially those with declining enrollment, to lose funds, which is not politically palatable to the legislature.

“Don’t let anybody tell you that our kids can’t achieve,” said Kenney. “I don’t care what neighborhood they come from, I don’t care how struggling their neighborhood is, I don’t care how poor they are, there’s a light and there’s kids who need to be shown and brightened so they can meet their potential.”

Wolf noted that Pennsylvania ranks 47th among states in the proportion of money it contributes to education, compared to the local share. His own efforts over the years to improve that record have been largely stymied by the Republican General Assembly, although since he took office, state aid to education has increased significantly.

Hughes said: “The face of inequity in funding in public education, the face of it, is represented in the physical construction of our schools. This effort by the governor and all of us here is to help us move further down the path to making sure that we realize that the dreams of every child and every family member has for their children and for our community. This needs to be about the first step of a long process. … We need 21st-century schools in this city.”