This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Pennsylvania State Sen. Vincent Hughes has introduced legislation that would raise $85 million for repairs to Philadelphia school buildings. The money would come either from unused money in state special programs or from a surplus in the general fund.
Hughes made the announcement Wednesday morning with the Fund Our Facilities Coalition, made up of state and city legislators and union members, at Richard Wright Elementary School.
“We are in a position to fix a critical structural need, and we cannot afford to lose this opportunity to provide thousands of teachers, students, and school staffers with a healthy, safe environment each day,” Hughes said. “The investments I am proposing would help fund the critical maintenance and repair and provide those conditions. We must act now and repair the unhealthy and unsafe conditions for the future of our students and our education system.”
Hughes (D-Philadelphia) is proposing a $125 million package. Of that, $85 million would go to Philadelphia, where the coalition has estimated that it will take $170 million to make all District schools free from lead paint, asbestos, and other immediate health hazards. Of the remainder, $30 million would go to 134 high-poverty school districts and $10 million would be split among other districts.
State Sen. Vincent Hughes. Photo provided by the PFT.
“The bills sponsored by Sen. Hughes send the message that the Fund Our Facilities Coalition is actively working and making real progress toward improving teaching and learning conditions in Philadelphia,” said Jerry Jordan, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president. PFT organized the coalition.
Funding for Senate Bill 555 would come in the form of a $125 million grant from several of the state’s special funds that have outstanding balances. Hughes is proposing using $35 million from the Surface Mining Conservation and Reclamation Fund and $45 million from the Underground Storage Tank Indemnification Fund. In addition, money would come from several trust accounts, including $10 million from the First Industries Program, $20 million from the New Pennsylvania Venture Capital Investment Program, and $15 million from the Building Pennsylvania Program.
Senate Bill 556 is an alternative proposal that would secure the $125 million from the current state budget surplus.
Besides being used for lead and asbestos remediation, the funds would be restricted to other critical improvements, including the repair or replacement of HVAC, electrical and plumbing systems, roofs and windows, and any other repair that poses a health or safety hazard.
State Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler (D-Philadelphia) said she plans to introduce similar legislation in the House.
The bill’s chances of passage are uncertain. A state program called PlanCon was started in 1979 to reimburse districts for the repair and construction of school buildings, but in 2015, the Republican-controlled legislature zeroed out PlanCon’s funding.
“Right now, our children spend their days in leaking buildings surrounded by lead, rodents, and outdated electrical systems,” said Fiedler. “This is outrageous and unacceptable.”
Democratic State Rep. Donna Bullock represents the North Philadelphia neighborhood where Richard Wright Elementary is located. “These conditions wouldn’t be acceptable in any other district, and we shouldn’t accept them in Philly’s public schools,” she said. “The state has a responsibility to provide the resources to make every school building a clean and safe environment.”
Several members of City Council also attended the event to show their support, including Council President Darrell Clarke, Derek Green, and Helen Gym, who called conditions in the schools “a profound and outrageous injustice.”
Clarke called for the state to fully fund PlanCon “so that we never fall this far behind in our responsibility to Pennsylvania’s children ever again.”