This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The Board of Education will hold its first public committee meeting Thursday, and the subject is school facilities. It’s been a contentious topic since the school year started early in the middle of a heat wave, which forced early dismissals and drew attention to the District’s lack of air conditioning in most of its buildings.
The District is also planning to form a new Calendar Committee to review the early-start decision, given that so far there have been six days of unplanned early dismissals due to excessive heat. Schools will also close early on Thursday.
The meeting of the Finance & Facilities Committee will be at 10 a.m. in District headquarters, 440 N. Broad St. Members of the public who wish to speak must register in advance.
The Philly Healthy Schools Coalition is preparing to testify before the school board. The coalition, made up of parent organizations, education activists, unions, and nonprofits from around the city, formed last year after struggles between community members and the District over public health concerns in the District’s aging school buildings. Parents and activists came together to form the coalition, which has pushed the District to be more transparent about work going on in schools and to involve parents and community members in the planning process.
The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that 24 percent of the nation’s schools are in either “poor” or “fair” condition. Using data from the District’s Facilities Condition Assessment (FCA), Jerry Roseman, the teachers’ union’s environmental scientist, calculated that more than 50 percent of Philadelphia’s schools fall into this category. The average Philly school is 67 years old, while the national average is just 42 years.
Backed by Councilman Derek Green, the coalition filed a Right to Know request with the District seeking disclosure of the school-level environmental data, such as where lead paint is peeling, where asbestos is exposed, and where the roof is leaking.
David Masur, executive director of Penn Environment, said most of the request was eventually fulfilled after delays and further Right to Know requests. But some data still was not provided, and Masur feels the entire process of sharing data is at fault.
“We think that the process as it currently exists is backwards,” Masur said. “The public and taxpayers should get access to all information, except where the District can prove it has proprietary or security reasons to keep it private. It shouldn’t be done the current way, where everything is proprietary and we need to request everything. Since new data is added every day, the current system will never be a full view of the information so the public can make informed decisions.”
Roseman said the live updates to the school-level data that was not provided is one of the most important things they requested.
“Since the FCA numbers were originally generated by inspections conducted during 2015, the current system conditions, status, and FCA values are necessarily different now – it is and should be a living process,” Roseman said. “The FCA value of a system, let’s say a damaged roof, could be improved now if the old damaged roof has been replaced by a new one. On the other hand, a continually deteriorating system component, such as piping that may have needed attention but was not addressed, would be in a worse condition with a higher FCA value today compared to some years ago.”
In its first year, the coalition also had some unambiguous victories. After Roseman found that work to stabilize exposed lead paint was leaving behind lead dust in violation of standard protocols, the coalition pushed the District to rewrite the scope of work. And they got a commitment from the District to involve parents and community members in the planning process for such projects.
This resulted in a hearing before City Council, where the District outlined specific procedures that it would follow in the future. Last summer, Councilman Mark Squilla introduced legislation that would turn these procedures into city law. The District also created a lead stabilization committee and gave seats to members of the coalition, including parents, the union’s environmental scientist, the principals’ union, and building engineers.
“This committee is a mechanism for us to get more information and have a dialogue,” said Masur. “It’s also gotten some decision-makers to feel they have skin in the game.”
One of those decision-makers is State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia), who helped organize the state’s effort that led to a $7.6 million investment into lead paint stabilization work over the summer, matched by an investment from the District.
But the coalition is not about to pat itself on the back and go home. At a strategy meeting early this week, members discussed ways to bring more schools into the fold. Parent members will be attending back to school nights, where they will set up tables to petition and hand out information, hoping to get parents at every school in the city involved. They are prioritizing the schools with the most severe public health issues.
Speaking of committees, the District’s newly established Calendar Committee will hold its first meeting at the end of September. It will have 30 members, including more parents than the District’s last Calendar Committee had and also including business and religious leaders. Meetings will be open to the public, and the process will result in an online survey to get feedback from parents and teachers.
“We’ll present a couple options in the survey and give people their preference,” said Shawn Bird, chief schools officer for the District. “There were parents on there last time, but we’ve had a lot of people reach out this time regarding the heat issue, so we’ll expand the committee and include more parents on there. I just want to make sure it’s inclusive of people from all parts of the city.”
Bird said a central focus of the committee meetings and surveys will be whether classes should start before Labor Day, although they will not be limited to that.