This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
UPDATE: District officials confirm that they have, in fact, selected a research firm to handle CSPR process’ demographic research: FLO Analytics, of Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington. FLO specializes in catchment boundary reviews and school location choices, using “geographic and data analysis tools to provide districts with accurate student enrollment forecasting.” The firm is currently helping districts redraw catchment boundaries in several Pacific Northwest communities, including Portland’s, where the effort has generated concerns.
District spokesperson Megan Lello said that previously neglecting to name the firm in response to the Notebook’s questions was an accidental oversight and “in no way intentional.” (Our thanks to sharp-eyed Notebook reader Amara Rockar for unearthing the firm’s name in District meeting materials.) END UPDATE
Last week’s announcement of a teacher’s cancer diagnosis has highlighted an old problem for the School District of Philadelphia: Its aging buildings are riddled with asbestos, lead, and other toxins.
But in the discussion that followed, little mention was made of the fact that four months ago, District officials launched a process that’s meant to eventually address those concerns: a data-driven assessment designed to identify the most pressing needs in the most heavily used buildings.
If that planning process is drawing little attention now, it’s because it has barely begun. Key hires are yet to be made, communities and parents have yet to be engaged, and major questions about priorities and process have yet to be addressed.
That leaves stakeholders feeling that any solutions offered by the District’s new process are a long way off – too long, for some.
“What I hear from the people in my district is, what are you doing right now?” said State Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, whose South Philadelphia district will be the planners’ first area of focus.
Announced in May, the District’s Comprehensive School Planning Review (CSPR) is an ambitious effort that aims to use detailed demographic data to prioritize infrastructure spending. In addition to making sure all buildings are safe, the District will study demographic trends to consider where it may need to build new schools and seek to standardize grade spans so that students in all neighborhoods have sensible K-12 options. It may also consider changing catchment boundaries – a process that can raise a whole host of other issues if new boundaries alter the school’s demographic makeup.
But building safety is now priority one. And remediation of lead, asbestos and other toxins is just part of the District’s estimated $4.5 billion backlog of needed capital improvements. And the report that gave the District that figure, which was compiled by an outside consultant starting in 2015 and released in 2017, is now out-of-date.
The CSPR process was slated to launch this fall, guided by hired consultants and various committees. But officials now say it won’t take its first public steps until closer to the new year, and they’re staying quiet about the details. Officials declined to comment on how the CSPR process could affect the issue of the widespread presence of toxic materials in schools. Although some internal hires have been made, District officials did not indicate when they expect to select the consultants who will play a central role in the planning.
“This summer we began forming the project team,” said District spokesperson Megan Lello in a text message. “We will provide details on next steps at the finance and facilities committee meeting in November,” including “details on public engagement.”
At last week’s news conference demanding $100 million to clean up toxic materials in schools, which was convened by local lawmakers and Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, the lawmakers greeted a question about the CSPR process with a collective shrug.
Lead and asbestos remediation “needs to happen now,” said Jerry Jordan, head of the PFT. “Not four or five years from now.”
The District’s well-documented problem with toxins and carcinogens surged back into the headlines last week with the revelation that a Philadelphia teacher was diagnosed with mesothelioma, an asbestos-related cancer.
Little is known about the diagnosis or the teacher, whom union officials say spent 17 years at Meredith Elementary. District officials say they’ve recently completed three asbestos remediation projects at Meredith.
The school is just one of dozens of aging school buildings with documented contamination. Overall, District officials say, they’ve spent $20 million over the last three years on 1,600 asbestos cleanup projects. Officials confirm that tight budgets have left many projects undone, but they say no students or staff are directly threatened by any remaining lead in water or paint or loose asbestos.
“Our buildings are safe,” Chief Operating Officer Danielle Floyd said last week.
However, union officials contend that a total of 175 schools contain potentially toxic lead and asbestos – including Meredith, where concerns include asbestos-wrapped pipes.
Asbestos, widely used as insulation before 1978, is not dangerous if it is adequately contained. If released into the air due to deterioration, however, its fibers can be deadly. Lead paint also becomes dangerous if it flakes, and old lead pipes can leach the metal into drinking water.
The solution should be simple, said Pat Eiding, head of the local AFL-CIO: “Fix these schools for these kids.”
And the District does have some short-term plans to remove toxic materials from some schools. This week’s Board of Education meeting will include a vote on whether to approve the use of $9.2 million in state funds for comprehensive lead remediation in North Philadelphia’s “Health Enterprise Zone.”
But that is a one-time grant that must be used in schools in a particular geographic area, even if other schools might have more dangerous conditions. Overall, the Board of Education has no control over the District’s revenue – it is entirely dependent on the state and city for funding,
And as the advocates’ $100 million demand indicates, the costs of system-wide remediation remain dauntingly high.
Deciding on priorities
School officials hope the CSPR process addresses this problem by using data to set priorities. Goals of the CSPR process, according to the District’s FAQ, include “optimizing utilization of our buildings” and “investing limited capital dollars where needed most.”
District officials have so far declined to talk in any detail about the way these “utilization” assessments could affect decisions about lead, asbestos and other toxins.
It is not clear, for example, whether high-demand schools like Meredith could find themselves moved ahead of other, less-populated schools on any kind of remediation priority list. Nor is it clear whether cleanup costs could figure into District recommendations about closing or merging schools.
Multiple factors would be considered in such decisions – including costs, catchment boundaries and community preferences – but how the District might balance them is as yet unknown.
Jordan, of the PFT, said that at this point, he knows almost nothing about CSPR’s implications for contaminated buildings or their staff.
“It’s really just starting, so there’s not much information available,” Jordan said.
But one thing is clear: The CSPR process is designed to help officials decide where to spend and where not to spend.
“You just can’t add on,” said Superintendent William Hite when the new process was first announced. “You have to make some decisions, looking at the long-range enrollment projections for those areas.”
First details due in November
In the initial timeline for the multi-year CSPR process, the stated goal for summer 2019 was to “hire [a] firm to bring best practices, national expertise and objectivity” and begin research and outreach in the fall.
However, District officials have not yet selected that firm, and little community engagement has taken place.
Union officials say they haven’t been engaged or updated. Fiedler and Council member Helen Gym both said they had not yet heard anything. “We’ll be calling them,” said Gym.
When it does begin, the CSPR’s first focus will be on three separate “study areas” in parts of South, North, and West Philadelphia (details below). The data that is collected could affect not just buildings, but also the academic programs inside them. CPSR data will help the District “expand or reduce classes in certain grades, build additional spaces, invest in ways to use existing space more effectively, bring programs together to share resources or move programs,” the District FAQ says.
The CSPR process will also consider changing catchment boundaries, possibly redrawing maps to reduce demand in some schools and increase it in others. This ranks among the most potentially controversial aspects of the process, raising difficult questions about racial balance, gentrification, and desegregation.
The role of such social concerns in the planning process – and how they might be balanced with contamination and other infrastructure issues – is unclear.
In theory, parents will play a role, but how other stakeholders will be involved is less clear. Each study area will have a committee that includes school parents asked to “advise and inform,” according to the District’s FAQ. The committees will also include “a broad stakeholder team” with “deep community knowledge,” but no specifics are yet available about who will select those stakeholders, what role they will play, and whether school staff or other educators will be included.
Asked for an update on progress since the spring, Lello said that the District had made three internal hires – “a new deputy chief of school planning and space management … a project manager and a project coordinator to focus on community planning and outreach,” she wrote.
The new deputy chief of school planning and space management is Vanessa Benton. District officials were unable to provide a biography, but her LinkedIn profile says that she’s a banker-turned-educator whose most recent position was as deputy chief of external strategy for Mastery Charter Schools. She is a former Broad Institute fellow who has worked for public and charter schools in North Carolina, including a stint as director of academic services for the state’s second-largest public school district, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
So for now, while those inside the process promise that eventually all will be made clear, those outside the process are left to wait and see.
At the end of the PFT’s news conference last week, David Masur, an advocate with Penn Environment who works closely with the union on lead and asbestos issues, said he was disappointed but not surprised to see so little stakeholder outreach from the District so far.
“When you asked [about the CSPR process], you might have noticed a lot of people rolling their eyes,” he said. “That embodies the problem with the District. They almost never invite the stakeholders who should have a seat at the table.”
But Masur hopes that with a new, locally controlled school board in place, the process will eventually open up.
“It’s kind of like teaching new tricks to an old dog,” he said. “I’d like to hope it’s just growing pains.”
The first schools studied: Cycle One
The CSPR process will consider conditions at District- and charter-run neighborhood schools. Traditional, lottery-admission charter schools apparently will not be considered; the role of citywide-admission and magnet schools remains unclear.
Here are the schools included in each “study area.”
STUDY AREA ONE
(South Philadelphia, including the neighborhoods of Point Breeze, Graduate Hospital, Bella Vista, Queen Village, and East Passyunk)
E.M. Stanton Elementary
STUDY AREA TWO
(North Philadelphia, including the Fairhill neighborhood and parts of Kensington)
De Burgos Elementary
Munoz- Marin Elementary
STUDY AREA THREE
(West Philadelphia, including Overbrook and Wynnefield)
Mastery Charter – Mann Elementary
Universal Charter – Bluford Elementary