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Thursday’s school board meeting promises to be contentious

Building safety and charter expansion expected to dominate the discussion

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

When the Board of Education meets Thursday, the members will have to confront two of its most contentious issues: building safety and charter expansion.

Several speakers among the 50 who signed up by 4 p.m Wednesday are expected to address school conditions and teacher and student safety, especially after a teacher was diagnosed with the asbestos-related cancer mesothelioma. The teacher has not been identified, but it is known that she spent 17 years at Meredith Elementary School.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers released a “Healthy Schools Action Plan” for dealing with asbestos in schools. Asbestos, long used in insulation through the 1970s, becomes dangerous when damage causes it to flake and create airborne fibers that can damage lungs.

PFT president Jerry Jordan, with some elected leaders, toured another school Wednesday morning with exposed pipes and damaged ceilings that could lead to asbestos exposure.

“This isn’t a problem at one or two schools. That’s why we’ve developed a comprehensive action plan for every building where children and educators are in danger,” said Jordan. He and the officials earlier asked for $100 million in funding to immediately correct hazardous conditions in the city’s school buildings.

The PFT’s Caucus of Working Educators is organizing teachers to speak about dangerous conditions in their schools at tomorrow’s meeting.

The District released a response to the PFT plan, stating: “Today, District staff met with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers for several hours on a joint approach to address environmental conditions in schools, which mirrors what was released by the PFT. This is the first we are seeing this plan and look forward to reviewing it.” The District expects to make further comments at the board meeting.

District officials met with community members at Meredith on Monday and agreed on a “full remediation and repair schedule,” according to a letter sent by top school officials to the school community.

Evaluation and repair work began on Sept. 9, a little more than a week after the environmental science director for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers advised the District of the diagnosis.

An outside contractor will do a thorough building check, called an Indoor Environmental Quality inspection, and the remediation project for hazardous conditions, including loose asbestos, lead in paint and plaster, and ventilation, pest, and moisture issues. The gymnasium will be closed for three weeks “due to the potential for future damage and disturbance of asbestos-containing materials,” primarily to remove “all remaining asbestos-containing pipe insulation.”

Another meeting with the Meredith community was scheduled for today.

The Healthy Schools Coalition, which includes the unions, parents, and other stakeholders, is also working to get the District to look more comprehensively at school conditions and be more transparent, intentional and collaborative in its maintenance work and scheduling. Several people said that the District’s money pressures often mean that sensible projects are deferred, such as fixing pipes before they burst, and questionable decisions are made, such as installing new boilers without fixing pipes.

The PFT action plan lays out strategies in five areas: assessment and evaluation, high-risk location identification, urgent short-term response, overall operations and maintenance, and long-term abatement.

The school board is also scheduled to vote on renewals for eight charter schools, all but one of them run by Mastery. The ninth renewal that will be considered is KIPP West Philadelphia, which is proposing to absorb KIPP West Philly Prep. Some of these charters have been unsigned for years due to disagreements over imposed conditions.