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Labor, legislators say $170 million needed to make immediate repairs in dangerous city schools

They vowed to make it happen, although they didn't specify funding sources.

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

Labor leaders and elected officials in the Fund Our Facilities Coalition demanded an immediate $170 million investment Friday to fix the most urgent problems in Philadelphia aging public school buildings, although they did not have a plan for how to raise the money or reorient existing funds.

In a press conference outside Francis Scott Key Elementary School in South Philadelphia, the group cited mold hazards, toxic asbestos, lead in paint and pipes, and generally poor conditions and outdated systems in many schools.

“This $170 million we’re talking about? This is money we need now, to make our school buildings clean, safe, and healthy,” said State Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler of Philadelphia. “This is not fancy stuff – these are basic things that our children deserve.”

Fiedler, a Democrat who represents the South Philadelphia district where Key Elementary is located, said that issues found at Key alone include flaking of potential lead paint, water intrusion, the need for electrical upgrades, and cleaning and maintenance.

Key was built in 1889, and it is the oldest city school building still in use.

“How do you allow a child to be in a building where the roof is leaking or walls … are crumbling?” asked Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “This is the 21st century in the richest country in the world. This is unacceptable.”

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan was also present; the PFT had been sounding alarms about building conditions before the severity of Philadelphia’s situation drew media attention.

Fiedler said that when students are told they cannot go to certain parts of their classrooms and school buildings because of structural problems or water damage, “they get a clear message from society about how much they are valued.”

“Our kids are as valuable as children who live in richer parts of our state.” Fiedler said, eliciting murmurs from the crowd of “say it again, say it again.” She repeated the statement, adding, “I hear from children and parents all the time. [They] talk about the conditions that their precious little people encounter every single day when they are trying to do something so simple as learn. I believe it’s our moral responsibility as elected officials, regardless of what level of government we serve, to fight for this funding.”

City Council member Cherelle Parker pointed out that the average age of a Philadelphia School District building is 66 years, compared to the national average of 42 years. “That puts us 24 years behind the rest of the nation as it relates to the state of our buildings,” Parker said.

Although the coalition does not have a breakdown of funding sources for the $170 million, it is focused on getting support from the governor, the mayor, and federal sources.

“In terms of where the money comes from, it’s all negotiable,” said State Sen. Vincent Hughes, a Philadelphia Democrat. “We’ll work with whoever we gotta work with — believe me, whoever we gotta work with — to get the money, from whatever source it has to be.”

The School District of Philadelphia has no power to raise money on its own, so it must rely on City Council and the state government for most of its revenue. In Mayor Kenney’s latest budget, about $1.2 billion will go to the schools. Most is raised through funding sources dedicated to the District, including more than half of the property tax. For the last several years, the city has included a direct “contribution” from the city’s own budget; this year it is $214 million.

Last week Gov. Wolf came to another city school, Taggart Elementary, to announce a $4.5 billion initiative for the repair of schools, bridges, roads and other aging infrastructure. He is proposing a tax on natural gas extraction to pay for it; such a tax has long been opposed by the Republican-controlled legislature. Taggart was one of the schools that benefited from a $7.6 million grant that Wolf gave the District for repairs last year.

In the “lump sum” budget presented to the Board of Education on Thursday night, Superintendent William Hite said that lead paint issues will have been stabilized in 30 “high priority” schools by the beginning of the next school year. The District’s five-year plan includes $750 million in capital spending over the next five years, or about $150 million annually, to address all building needs.

District spokesperson Lee Whack issued a statement in response to the press conference: “We are thankful for recent investments in our buildings and we have prioritized those resources to make improvements. Going forward it is important that we have a dedicated source of funding to repair and enhance our schools. … We are thankful for our improved partnerships with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, public officials and school families as this work continues.”

Hughes cast the issue in terms of equity and valuing all children.

“I just want you to think about a child sitting in a classroom with this lead falling down on the desk,” he said. “A child sitting in a classroom with this mold, with this rodent infestation, or asbestos … only because we’re not committed to the resources. … We’re going to figure out a way to get his done, any way shape or form, if you will, by any means necessary.”

Weingarten attended the news conference as part of the AFT’s national “Fund Our Future” campaign that is demanding investment in public schools across the country.

“If something is a priority in the United States of America, if something is a priority in Pennsylvania, it will get funded, and what you see here is an unprecedented coalition to say, ‘we must make sure we do not poison our children,’” she said. “And it takes $170 million to fix these buildings to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

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