This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
This story has been updated to reflect developments Friday.
Philadelphia School District officials say they are taking a “pause” in their asbestos inspections to make sure that they’re effective, and an internal investigation is underway to discover exactly how the Ben Franklin High School reconstruction project went so badly wrong.
UPDATE: The very next day, however, McClure Elementary School was abruptly closed when overnight test results showed elevated levels of asbestos in an area of the school. Parents were notified in the early morning, leaving them scrambling to find alternative child care for the day. And with escalating alarm and fury, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers again accused school officials of “egregious” breaches of agreements and protocol over how the testing and remediation is conducted.
“The process that is continually insisted upon by the Federation is maligned and called into question time and again by District officials,” said a statement issued by PFT president Jerry Jordan. “Let me be clear: what has unfolded over the last several days at McClure and at Carnell [another school that was closed] is an egregious disregard for the safety of our school communities. ”
Jordan said he is “disgusted with the District’s ongoing refusal to adhere to our recommendations. I will not allow this sham of a process to continue, and will have further updates on our legal course of action in short order.”
Jerry Roseman, the PFT’s veteran environmental scientist, has long complained about the District’s inability to properly manage potentially toxic conditions in its buildings.
The overnight testing, insisted upon by the union, “yielded elevated levels of asbestos, indicating that our concerns and outrage were absolutely warranted. Our recommendations are borne out of decades of experience. Our Director of Environmental Science has been one of the preeminent experts in his field for decades. Our recommendations yesterday were not made out of an overabundance of caution. They were made based on science.”
In its statement announcing the closure, the District said that two air samples came back “slightly elevated.”
Later in the day, the District issued a new statement saying it had been working with the PFT since November “to finalize a document outlining processes and protocols. We have also been waiting since November for the PFT to suggest edits and sign off on the proposal.”
It said that the McClure testing on Thursday night “exceeds what is required by law [and] was also aggressive,” using leaf blowers to stir up air. “Of the twenty samples collected, two were slightly elevated, but still within acceptable limits” according to federal standards. One other sample was above those standards, the statement said; additional cleanup of the third floor and an area used by City Year was already scheduled for the weekend.”
There was a testy passage of the statement that appeared to reference the PFT leadership’s actions in getting several elected officials to endorse its criticism of how the District has been handling environmental concerns in schools.
“The School District of Philadelphia is not interested in politics; we are invested in educating our students in safe learning environments so that they read on grade level, are prepared for college and career, and are ready to become the next generation of leaders of this city.” END UPDATE
At the Thursday board meeting, members said they’re trying to hold the District officials accountable for implementing the environmental safety plan that was announced in November by Superintendent William Hite.
“The board will continue to hold the District accountable for meeting the necessary and ambitious goals,” said committee chair Lee Huang. “We share your concerns. We are also upset, and we stand with everyone who wants to help us.”
Advocates, teachers, and parents in the audience responded with frustration and distrust, urging the board to take a harder line with the Hite administration and District staff and to make sure everyone makes good on their promises.
“Maybe you’re trying to make some fixes – but is anyone checking those fixes?” asked Kelsey Deitrick, a teacher at Franklin Learning Center, a high school.
“You put vents on some of the heaters, but some classrooms are still over 100 degrees. You sent painters, but you don’t know the things they didn’t complete. They didn’t fix the holes in the walls,” she testified. “Please make sure the things that are supposed to be done this summer get done.”
The “pause” in asbestos inspections comes on the day that additional asbestos contamination was discovered at McClure Elementary, which had just reopened Wednesday after being closed several days before winter break. Those inspections were one of a series of steps launched by the Hite administration in November. Attendees at Thursday’s meeting cast doubt on their effectiveness.
“I’m so glad you’re suspending [the inspections],” said Cindy Farlino, head of the principals’ union, the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators (CASA). “I’ve heard there are whole floors that get missed.”
The internal investigation into the Ben Franklin fiasco is being undertaken by the District’s inspector general. Huang raised the subject, and Hite’s chief of staff, Naomi Wyatt, confirmed that a report is being prepared, but said that she did not know when it will be released or what it might contain.
Updated safety plan
District officials’ announcement of their safety plan in November came in the wake of the shutdown of Ben Franklin High School, a surprise move forced by the discovery of damaged asbestos. The asbestos was disturbed during construction that was being done so that Science Leadership Academy could be co-located in the building. The District ended up relocating a thousand students from the two schools.
On Thursday, Wyatt updated the board on the safety plan’s progress. Since November, environmental inspections have identified 35 “imminent hazards” in 10 schools, she said, all but one of which (damaged asbestos in a now-sealed storage area at Carnell Elementary) have now been repaired.
A second set of inspections – walk-throughs by principals and District officials – revealed 25 imminent hazards at 17 other schools, all but one of which (asbestos in the attic at Roxborough High) have been addressed, Wyatt said.
The fact that inspections turned up problems is a good thing, said Wyatt. In a district with hundreds of aging buildings, the question isn’t whether there are hazards, but whether they’ve been found yet.
“It’s not expected that we look and don’t see anything,” she said. “It is expected that we find things and address them as needed.”
However, she said, the quality of the inspections needs improvement.
“We did [take] a brief pause on this inspection process while we do a review,” she said. “Are there places we can improve things?” She said that a review process has been underway since last week and that “the PFT has been actively invited to participate.”
Among the changes that the District plans to implement is “switch testing,” with testing firms double-checking each others’ work. Wyatt promised that when the inspection-process review is complete, the Hite administration will provide “a summary of strengths and weaknesses, and things we could improve.”
Huang responded that he hoped those results would be “widely shared.”
Wyatt and Financial Director Uri Monson said the District has completed or is nearing completion of several other toxin- and facilities-related projects:
- After reviewing seven vendors’ proposals, District officials will recommend a three-year, $20 million contract for a project management firm called JMT, which will be responsible for oversight and coordination of major capital projects. JMT’s mission will be to avoid repeats of the problems at Ben Franklin High and manage projects to include toxin remediation wherever possible.
- Work continues on the new “See Something, Say Something” hotline, meant to help staff members report problems. While that’s being developed, Wyatt said, staff should continue to use the reporting app developed by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers or go straight to their principals. “If we don’t know [about a problem], we can’t fix it,” said Wyatt.
- The District has formed an environmental advisory board and completed training for building engineers and other staff to help them better identify and report dangerous conditions.
- All major construction and renovation projects are currently being reviewed, to see whether the scope of work can be expanded to include environmental cleanup. Seven projects have been expanded in that manner, Wyatt said.
- District officials are moving to identify permanent “swing spaces” to house displaced students and expect to name some possibilities in “two or three months,” said Wyatt.
- The District has hired Drexel professor Arthur Frank to help it develop and share reliable information about the risks of asbestos. “The word ‘asbestos’ is a scary word, with a lot of scary implications,” Wyatt said. “But there’s also a lot of misinformation out there. … We can have more information about what is a risk, what is truth, and what is rumor.”
Wyatt said that the District has yet to determine the full cost of its various new initiatives, but expects to provide detailed dollar figures soon. But she told the board to be prepared for more asbestos news, not less.
“We have a lot of buildings. There’s going to be asbestos in them,” she said.
A call for better systems
In public testimony, several speakers told the board that the District’s moves to create systems that address asbestos and other contaminants are long overdue.
“I am rather appalled by the negligence of the School District,” said Deitrick of FLC, whose school was closed for two weeks to clean up asbestos. “We were without a building engineer for two years. … We were the ones who pushed for testing. And the reason why is, if you’d go to our rooms at any time of day, you’ll find a layer of dust on the children’s books.”
That dust, it turned out, came from a heating system whose vents hadn’t been cleaned for three generations, Deitrick said – an oversight that points to the lack of clear protocols for facility inspections and upgrades.
“I’m appalled at the fact that you can go 60 years without checking a vent for cleaning– but there’s no systems in place,” Deitrick said. “As a teacher, I’m held accountable for every single thing I do. How can I hold [administrators] accountable if there are no systems in place?”
Farlino, of the principals’ union, raised the same concern.
“We should have documents and systems,” she said. “When there is an environmental hazard, how does that get addressed, and how do we know when a school is safe to occupy?”
Farlino is the retired principal of Meredith Elementary, where a teacher was diagnosed with the asbestos-related disease mesothelioma. She said that as things now stand, the District’s responses to hazards can catch principals by surprise. Officials need to collaborate better with school leaders, she said.
“When there is any kind of environmental crisis in a school, administrators need to be notified formally,” she said. “There’s no excuse for going into a school in the morning and finding part of it taped off.”
Board member Angela McIver responded by saying that she too is troubled by the District’s apparent lack of clear guidance for reporting and responding to problems, and she asked District officials to update the board on its protocols at the next action meeting, later this month.
And Dana Carter, a former teacher who has begun organizing parents around toxin issues, called on the District to step up its testing and make sure that all schools are safe. She also asked that no parent or student be punished for avoiding an unsafe building.
“Stop threatening the parents with truancy court if they decide to keep their students home,” Carter said. “McClure was found to be toxic today, and the students and teachers are still there. … If those parents decide to keep their children home tomorrow, please do not mark them as truant.”
Additional reporting by Dale Mezzacappa.