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District leaders tell City Council how they deal with school hazards

They explained some mistakes made in lead-stabilization efforts.

council at lead hearing
Greg Windle

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

Philadelphia School District officials appeared before City Council last week to outline how they are improving communication with principals, parents, and school communities as they ramp up efforts to address environmental hazards — including lead, mold, and asbestos — in their aging buildings.

Also at the hearing were parents and union staff who are part of the Philly Healthy Schools Initiative, a coalition of activists and parents that drew attention to inadequate procedures and shoddy cleanup during lead-stabilization efforts, which led the District to redo the work in those schools.

Danielle Floyd, the chief operating officer of the District, told Council members that the average age of the District’s buildings is 70 years, with dozens constructed before the 1978 federal ban on lead-based paints. She explained that the District already requires paint and plaster inspections as part of the federally mandated annual asbestos reports.

Floyd said that they have completed work at Patterson, Mitchell, Harrington, Sheppard, Bregy, and Olney Elementary Schools. Work is underway in 17 others, she said, and a total of 46 schools have been selected for work to be completed by the end of the summer.

The schools are chosen based on whether they were built before 1978, have significant evidence of loose paint or plaster, and are occupied by children age 6 and under.

But after staff and parents with the Healthy Schools Initiative discovered dust containing lead particles in many rooms in several schools where the project and cleanup were supposedly complete, the District agreed to do it over, using new protocols. And experts from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) and the coalition are now helping with inspections.

“We have learned a great deal from our experience at the first 17 schools,” Floyd said. “We will apply these lessons to inform our remediation planning moving forward.”

Testimony from the Healthy Schools Initiative

Jerry Roseman is an environmental scientist who inspects school buildings for the PFT. He took the dust samples at Andrew Jackson Elementary School as part of his work with the Healthy Schools Initiative and explained in written testimony how “there was too little coordination and communication with parents and school staff” until lead paint particles were found due to poor quality cleanup work.

Roseman was left out of the process at first, but said that the District has been involving him since he took the dust samples at Jackson.

“The District moving quickly to address the issues with lead in these schools is laudable,” he said. “But haste can make waste, and we ended up with additional contamination.” He is urging more active cooperation with the PFT in prioritizing, planning, and executing these facilities projects from now on.

In response to questions from City Councilman Mark Squilla, officials outlined in extensive detail how they now examine all rooms for lead paint residue, instead of just rooms where asbestos is present.

And the workers now clean up more thoroughly. Instead of simply putting down plastic drop sheets and throwing them out afterward, workers now clean every surface of dust before and after the stabilization work.

The District has sent a letter to Council members outlining how it will communicate with school communities and has established a hotline phone number for people to call if they have concerns about work at their school, said Councilwoman Helen Gym.

Floyd said that in the future, letters will be sent home with students, notices will be left in staff mailboxes, and staff will receive emails about stabilization and cleanup projects.

Responding to questions from Councilman Derek Green, Floyd said that, as part of the communications initiative, the District will take the lead role, rather than leaving it to principals.

“We relied way too heavily on principals in order to communicate,” Floyd said. “Now we’ll be taking the lead on putting all communications together around the project … making sure not only principals, but all stakeholders in this project feel informed.”

Parent Laurie Mazer of Jackson School said a standard communication protocol is crucial “so we can make sure they are truly doing this right in every school, not just the ones with loud, angry parents.”

“It’s far better to be transparent about what work is being done and why it’s being done,” she said. “PFT expert staff aren’t only the eyes and ears for teachers; they’re the eyes and ears for all of us.”

District and PFT staff found 10 schools with “minor” problems. Three others had “major” problems: Nebinger, Jackson and A.S. Jenks Elementary Schools.

The project uses a combination of District in-house painting staff and contractors from the firm Pepper Environmental Services. Of the three schools that had major problems, Nebinger and A.S. Jenks were handled by Pepper, and Jackson was handled by District painters.

Floyd said that the District maintains standards and that contractors cannot bill for re-doing any work that was not done adequately.

Lack of staff and accessible data

Councilwoman Gym said she was concerned that vacancies among cleaning staff in the buildings and maintenance staff at District headquarters could be contributing factors to some of the problems.

“We’ve got a number of vacancies, which create gaps within schools in terms of people’s ability to communicate effectively,” Gym said. “I think that’s contributing to the sense of why parents are so frustrated.”

She worries that issues that otherwise might be picked up by custodial staff are falling through the cracks instead.

District officials confirmed that 9 percent of the 1,180 facilities positions (building engineers, custodians, etc.) were unfilled and 22 percent of the 253 maintenance positions were unfilled — painters, electricians, plumbers and other specialized crafts working out of District headquarters.

The District has begun an apprenticeship program so that it can recruit its own graduates into some of these jobs and has sent staff to five job fairs this school year.

“It’s so important for young people to see a direct line between their training and employment down the road,” Gym said, applauding the effort. But she said it would take more than that. “It still feels like there needs to be a creative and aggressive approach towards the Human Resources division to make sure that your job is a lot easier.”

Last fall, the Healthy Schools Initiative sought environmental data through a right-to-know request that was not entirely fulfilled, according to David Masur, executive director of Penn Environment and a central organizer of the initiative.

Members of the initiative wanted the raw school-level data behind the District’s 2015 Facilities Condition Assessment (FCA), which would show each reported problem in every room in the District. They expected to get access to a live database. Instead, they were given a snapshot of the most recent data. He said in an email that the District provided nine out of 10 of the data sets the initiative sought.

“This was somewhat helpful, but not ideal like a living database,” Masur said in an email. The initiative wants access to the databases that are “updated regularly, so that we don’t have to file right-to-know requests daily,” as new data come in from schools.

District spokesman Lee Whack said the District satisfied the right-to-know request, acknowledging that an appeal was filed by the Public Interest Law Center, which is part of the initiative.

Robin Roberts, a parent and organizer with Parents United who testified at the hearing, said: “All data should automatically be available to parents, taxpayers, and teachers.”

Council questions District representatives

Floyd was clear that the procedural mistakes made are not consistent problems across all facilities projects — a point that was confirmed by several City Council members who complimented the District on smaller-scale work done at specific schools in their Council districts. In those cases, they said, the school community was kept informed and the quality of work was adequate.

For example, after a 1st grader at Comly got lead poisoning, the District conducted that lead-stabilization work differently.

“We notified the school community three times,” Floyd said. “The assistant superintendent actually attended a parent meeting … along with our medical director to answer questions about what occurred at the school.”

Councilwoman Cherelle Parker complimented the District’s recent work, but nevertheless demanded answers on whether contractors are held to high standards, citing Pepper. The firm has collected at least $1 million from the District over the last two years for doing asbestos and mold abatement work, according to SRC resolutions.

The District relied on the firm for some major environmental cleanups, including asbestos abatement at the old Samuel Fels High School and the former John L. Kinsey Elementary, as well as the mold abatement at the beginning of this school year at Muñoz-Marin Elementary.

“We often and frequently call on them when we have large-scale environmental clean-ups,” Floyd said. “Earlier in the year, we had major issues with mold at J.B. Kelly. Pepper is who we utilized to do the remediation.”

In the fall of 2016, the firm received a $786,829 contract from the SRC for asbestos abatement at the old Fels High School building. In early 2017, Pepper received a contract for $184,711 to conduct asbestos abatement in the auditorium of the former Kinsey Elementary. Pepper conducted mold remediation at Muñoz-Marin Elementary for $305,000 after a mold outbreak there last summer. In December 2017, they received part of a $350,000 contract amendment with several other contractors.

When pushed on whether the District would continue to work with Pepper in the future, Floyd said only that “we certainly always retain the right not to use them.”

Although Parker didn’t want to “single out” Pepper, she suggested the District keep a record of all complaints connected to contractors’ work.

“Given some of the heavy loads the taxpayers are going to bear in the future, we have a right to ask for that accountability.”

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