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WE Caucus begins campaign to fix Philly’s aging, unhealthy schools

Organizers want to persuade their own school communities first, then take the fight to City Council. Said one teacher: If we don't speak up, who will?

Jessica Way speaks at the Working Educators’ event at the U School. (Photo: Greg Windle)

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

Jessica Way stood at the lectern in front of giant projected images showing the inside of her school. Not pretty pictures. Flaking lead paint. Mold growth. Loose asbestos exposed beneath the damaged floor tiles.

Way teaches nursing at Franklin Learning Center and is a member of the Working Educators Caucus within the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

“Some people are under the impression that my school has been remediated,” Way said, pointing to the pictures behind her. “Does this look remediated?”

She spoke on Monday night to parents and teachers who filled the U School’s auditorium. They were there to learn what they can do to secure more funding to fix the city’s decaying school buildings. Red T-shirts bearing the logo of the Working Educators, who are pushing an agenda of social justice unionism, were scattered throughout the audience.

“At our annual food truck festival, a number of students and my 7-year-old son ran into the building to grab some folding chairs,” Way said. “When the kids came outside, I was so grateful that I caught this: These chairs were covered in white paint – lead paint dust everywhere. They were getting ready to put those chairs down and go eat food from one of the trucks.”

Way showed pictures of the floor tiles that periodically pop out of place, revealing the asbestos below, as students roll their chairs over the floor. She was pleased that the District has evaluated Franklin Learning Center’s needs, three times now, but disappointed that the school still needed so much work.

“The last time they assessed the school, our gym teacher said: That’s assessment number three, but at what point are you actually going to fix the floor?”

The District’s five-year plan for capital expenditures runs through 2022, and it does not include any projects at Franklin Learning Center, which is housed in the original William Penn High School that was built in 1909. The plan does include 18 other schools for asbestos abatement, but the District can’t afford the appropriate abatements at every school that needs them – at least at the current rate of spending. The District’s own assessment found that it would need to add over $200 million annually to its capital budget just to avoid shunting more projects onto the $4.5 billion deferred maintenance list.

Although the District’s spending on maintenance has stepped up in recent years, it’s also many millions behind where it would need to be to meet national standards.

Emily Seiter, a school nurse who works in North Philadelphia, said that more than 27 percent of her students have asthma.

“That’s not unique in Philly,” she said. “We have the highest rate of children with asthma in the state and one of the highest in the country.”

Seiter, who has a master’s degree in public health, said that asthma is exacerbated by mold in schools, which affects the air that students breathe.

“Over time, asthma actually reshapes the airways in your lungs and reduces their ability to take in oxygen,” Seiter said. “There’s already an acute link between asthma and student achievement, because students with asthma are absent more often.”

Lead poisoning, on the other hand, is much slower, she said, and it leads to behavioral problems. “That makes it difficult for most children to function in the classroom. And these behaviors also tend to be criminalized. … In that way, lead exposure contributes to some of the first steps in the school-to-prison pipeline.”

The teachers and parents in attendance weren’t there just to listen. They committed to lobbying City Council for more school funding through two particular policies: ending the 10-year property tax abatement and requiring large tax-exempt nonprofits and universities to make Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOTs). They plan to seek signatures on petitions and have face-to-face conversations with teachers and parents across the city.

“There are many officials in this city who would like us to ignore these problems,” said Kathleen Melville, a WE Caucus member and teacher at the Workshop School. “They want us to believe that these conditions are inevitable — that there will never be enough money for Philly schools.”

Referring to a recent report by Good Jobs First, she said, “Philly gives away more of its education funding in the form of tax breaks to corporations than any other big city in the entire country.”

These two policies – ending the abatement and instituting PILOTS – were first proposed by the Our City Our Schools Coalition. They released a report advocating for several different policies to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in annually recurring funding for the District

“We’re not willing to accept the conditions in our schools as normal,” Melville said. “We’re not asking for Olympic-sized swimming pools and flat-screen TVs. We are asking for the bare minimum: safe schools.

“And we know what our leaders will say: that they don’t have the money. So we went ahead and looked at the budget and told them where to find the money.”

The PILOT program was estimated to raise at least $95 million annually. The University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University are the only Ivy League schools in the country that do not already make PILOTs. Penn has an endowment of $13.8 billion.

A recent report released by the coalition maintained that the School District loses over $61 million each year to the city’s 10-year property tax abatement based on the city’s data. And that abatement largely benefits the most affluent parts of the city.

The mayor and City Council have been resistant to reducing or eliminating the abatement, saying that it has been a successful incentive for a building boom.

The city Department of Revenue commissioned a study of the abatements’ costs and benefits that was released in May. It took a long view, concluding that changes to the incentives would generate more revenue for the School District for the next 18 to 22 years. After that, the study predicted, lost development would lead to a decline in revenues.

The city’s study attempted to minimize the losses to the District by calculating offsetting reductions in such areas as wage tax revenue contributed by construction workers. The wage tax, however, is not a regular source of revenue for the District, which gets most of its local dollars from the property tax and is far more dependent on it than the city is.

“There are thousands more of us who care about safe schools than [there are] of them who care about tax abatements,” Melville said. “But we have to show them our power. We have to organize. It’s the only way to force our leaders to shift money away from corporations and into our schools.”

Amina Malik has three children in the city’s public schools. She “loves” the schools her kids attend and she’s proud to say it. But the other day her principal called her to say that her son reported that one of his pancakes tasted funny. When staff inspected the pancake, they found mouse droppings. She was grateful that she was informed immediately and that the school nurse monitored her son.

“I pay my taxes so that kids can have schools that are safe,” Malik said, adding that not everyone in the city pays their fair share. And she wants to change that.

Jessica Way used to be afraid to talk about these issues. Those days are over.

“[A colleague] reminded me that I am a mandated reporter of child abuse,” Way said. “My friends and I up here, we are filling out a report and giving it to you right now,” she said, referring to the personal testimonies she and others made at the meeting.

“Neglect” is also a form of child abuse, and “our students have been neglected by the School District, by the city, and by the state,” Way said.

Philadelphia students “get less money per student than white school districts in the center of the state,” she said. An analysis of state aid by David Mosenkis of the faith-based advocacy group POWER showed that after controlling for poverty, predominantly white districts get more money per student from the state than those where students of color are the majority.

“Our students have been allowed to sit in classrooms with temperatures of 96 degrees. Our kindergartners have sat in classrooms with mice running around the floor. Our co-workers have started developing lupus and cancer, and we will always have to wonder: Was it the building?”

Way concluded by saying the time for silence is over.

“We work in a culture of fear,” she said, referring to the intimidation that teachers can face for speaking publicly about conditions in their schools. “What if you posted your pictures of flaking paint on Twitter? What if you just tell the truth? Will your principal say something? Will your coworkers ask not to be the center of attention?

“I used to be afraid, too. But now I’m just angry,” she said. “If we don’t tell parents, who will? If we don’t tell politicians, then who will? If we don’t tell the media, then who will?”

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