This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Updated 10 p.m with link to complaint
Making the argument that students and staff can no longer trust the Philadelphia School District’s management, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers is calling for state courts to seize control of the process of cleaning up asbestos and other toxins in the city’s public schools.
“We all deserve to work in schools that are clean,” said union member Jennifer Ballard, a teacher at asbestos-contaminated T.M. Peirce Elementary, during a PFT press conference Monday. “No more secrets. Everybody needs to be on the same page.”
In a suit filed Monday in Pennsylvania’s Court of Common Pleas, the union alleges that by failing to properly clean up toxins, the District is violating “a fundamental, substantive due-process right,” said PFT attorney Deborah Willig. The complaint calls on the courts to assume formal jurisdiction of the cleanup, approving standards for measuring and abating contamination, and serving as the final word on when buildings are ready for occupation.
Pennsylvania’s constitution guarantees students a “thorough and efficient” public education, said Willig, including “proper and healthful” facilities.
But the recent spate of surprise closures and questionable inspections, most recently at McClure Elementary in North Philadelphia, shows that the District isn’t living up to those legal obligations, Willig said.
“They’re failing to follow the law. … You can’t trust them,” said Willig. “We’re not crying wolf here.”
The PFT’s suit also calls on the court to establish joint responsibilities for District and union officials requiring collaboration on testing, reporting, and remediation.
Union officials and teachers cited the recent whirl of conflicting decisions around McClure as a motivation for the lawsuit. Students and staff were told in late December that the McClure building was contaminated and had to close. Last week, they were told it was finally safe to return and that students who stayed away could be charged with truancy. A few days later, they were told that new testing had shown more toxic dust, and now McClure is closed again. The District announced late Monday that it would remain closed for at least the rest of this week.
“It almost seems to me that the District is gambling – and with McClure, the gamble didn’t pay off,” said Mark Paikoff, a teacher at another contaminated school, Carnell Elementary. Paikoff called the lawsuit a “sad, but necessary step.”
Parent Antione Little, who has three children at Peirce, said the union’s proposed changes could help heal the widening rift between families and District officials. The McClure situation showed how bad things have become, he said: One day, District officials are threatening parents with truancy court; the next day, they close the school because it’s too dangerous.
“They attempted to force people to go back [to McClure], and then had to eat their words,” said Little. “There is zero trust.”
District officials responded to the PFT’s suit by saying they’ll “review the legal filings when we receive them,” but indicated that they’d prefer to avoid taking the conflict to court.
“Our hope is that we can focus our collective efforts on finalizing the processes and protocols document we proposed to the PFT in November … working together … without distractions,” said spokesperson Megan Lello in a statement.
McClure: Latest battle in long war
The PFT’s suit marks the latest move in a steadily escalating battle over building contaminants that flared up this fall and has dominated headlines since.
In September, the PFT announced that a veteran District teacher who had worked in contaminated buildings had been diagnosed with mesothelioma, a deadly cancer linked to asbestos exposure. Soon after, the union publicized its discovery of asbestos dust in Ben Franklin High School, where a major renovation project was already raising health concerns.
Since then, a surge of testing has revealed potentially dangerous asbestos fibers that have forced the closure of five buildings and the displacement of students from six schools. Those include Ben Franklin High (where asbestos dust was disturbed by construction undertaken to configure the building to also house a second school, Science Leadership Academy), as well as Peirce, McClure, Carnell and Franklin Learning Center.
“The last six or seven months has been the most intense period I’ve experienced,” said Jerry Roseman, who has been the PFT’s environmental specialist for several decades.
The Hite administration has scrambled to respond, hiring teams of new contractors to identify and clean up toxins, while also promising to upgrade procedures and protocols for everything from routine inspections to major capital project management.
Pressure on Hite comes not just from the public and the teachers’ union, but from the Board of Education, now in its second year. Faced with a steady stream of angry parents and educators, the board has consistently signaled its desire to see the Hite administration respond more effectively.
Last week, for example, board member Lee Huang, chair of the Finance and Facilities Committee, said that the board “eagerly” awaits the results of the Hite’s internal investigation into the shortcomings of its toxin inspections, urging that the findings be “widely shared.”
“We are also upset, and we stand with everyone who wants to help us,” said Huang at the time.
The board is also awaiting the results of an internal investigation of the Ben Franklin High fiasco, being undertaken by the District’s inspector general, Huang said.
Board members are clearly aware that the toxin problem will not go away soon; at the facilities committee meeting, member Chris McGinley pressed administration officials to move quickly to find new relocation spaces for future closures, since “our expectation is that we will have additional schools that cannot operate because it’s not safe.”
Against this backdrop, Roseman said, the goal of the lawsuit is to get the courts to clarify the District’s obligations to the union once and for all, ensuring consistent collaboration on planning, testing and data sharing.
“There are times when they work with us. … Other times they do not,” said Roseman.
Roseman said the PFT would be happy to comply with whatever the courts agree are the best approaches to testing and cleanup. “We’ve consistently called for best practices,” he said.
Leadership in union and District
District officials have acknowledged that their inspections mandated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency haven’t been good enough. Last Thursday, they announced a “pause” in their inspection process and said they were inviting the PFT to help plan improvements.
But District officials also said that they’ve been waiting since November for PFT to sign off on proposed changes. Their statement last week implied that politics is an obstacle to effective collaboration.
“The School District of Philadelphia is not interested in politics; we are invested in educating our students in safe learning environments,” officials said last week. “We will continue to work with the PFT as we move forward. We are committed to meeting all safety standards, even aggressive ones exceeding legal requirements.”
Jerry Jordan, whose position as PFT president will be on the line in union elections scheduled for February, denied any political motivation behind the lawsuit. Jordan’s leadership team, known as the Collective Bargaining Caucus, faces a challenge from the Caucus of Working Educators, a self-described “progressive” faction that seeks to raise the PFT’s level of civic activism.
“I don’t want to make this a campaign issue, because it is not,” Jordan said.
And despite the allegations of mistrust, Jordan stopped short of calling for Hite’s job, saying the PFT isn’t looking to replace the man that has led the District since 2012.
“We want to work with Dr. Hite – we can’t wait for another administration,” said Jordan.
And on yet another political front, the Board of Education itself could face changes; nominations are currently open for new board members, and although Mayor Kenney is expected to ask for all current members to return, a change to the city charter gives City Council members veto power over board appointments.
If all these political conditions help bring attention to the District’s long-standing toxin problem – the average age of its buildings is 70 years old – that’s a good thing, said Little, the Peirce parent.
But the challenge will be to focus on students’ needs, he said. What matters most isn’t who runs the union or the District, he said, but whether the two can effectively collaborate. “I don’t think the politics will overwhelm the substance [of the debate] – but we can’t let that happen,” said Little. “The positive thing is when the District and union can sit down and work together towards a common goal.”