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In PFT-sponsored rally, elected officials call District’s response to asbestos ‘negligent’ and demand changes

In a scathing letter, they sought revised procedures for cleanup and inspection. UPDATED 1/13 WITH LINK TO DISTRICT RESPONSE

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

The teachers’ union and elected officials ratcheted up pressure on Philadelphia School District officials Wednesday with a rally in front of Carnell Elementary, one of the schools that has been closed due to fears of dangerous loose asbestos. Carnell is due to open Monday.

While repeating prior calls for more state money to help the District with environmental cleanup and upkeep of its aging infrastructure, most of the officials signed a scathing letter that called the District’s response to the discovery and repair of potentially hazardous damage in schools “troubling,” “haphazard,” and “negligent.”

Update: Link to District response.

As he has before, State Sen. Vincent Hughes, a Democrat, said the state should dip into its $300 million “rainy day fund” to help pay for needed school repairs. Democratic State Rep. Joe Hohenstein said Gov. Wolf needs to make school infrastructure improvement a major piece of his new budget.

But the letter, signed by two City Council members, two state senators, four state representatives, and U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle, lit into Superintendent William Hite and his team for “process-based deficiencies that are putting the safety of our children and educators at risk.” Those who signed have affected schools in their districts.

“The people that we serve – the young people and families in our communities and the educators who teach them – are scared,” the letter says. “They need and deserve answers, and the processes we have seen play out time and again are extremely haphazard and, in some cases, negligent. Further, the approach to remediation has often felt to us like an attempt at a negotiation, when the reality is, we refuse to negotiate for conditions that we must in fact demand.”

The letter calls for changes in procedures for addressing potential hazards in schools that would give the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and its Health and Welfare Fund’s environmental consultant, Jerry Roseman, more involvement in the cleanup process, inspections, and subsequent testing.

One demand is that the District provide the PFT with all data and inspection results “as soon as the District obtains the information and before any assessment and/or remedial actions are taken.” The PFT also wants to “jointly develop” and help deliver outreach and communication to school staff “prior to the start of any evaluations, inspections and remediation activities to ensure proper coordination and awareness of work to be performed.” The relevant information for the community should be provided in “readable and non-scientific format,” the letter says.

The District issued a general response, stating that its “Environmental Safety Improvement Plan, which was unveiled in November, reflects a comprehensive effort to accelerate our ability to identify and address environmental safety concerns in our schools. We will continue to fully leverage the resources we have to advance this Plan, and identify and resolve environmental issues in partnership with the PFT with safety always at the forefront of our decision making.”

The District has recently shaken up its facilities management division and issued bonds to generate more funds for building maintenance.

Today’s rally at Carnell was organized by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ leadership, which is facing a challenge from the Caucus of Working Educators in next month’s union election. Last week, leaders of the WE caucus organized protests in front of Franklin Learning Center and McClure Elementary School on the first day back from winter break.

FLC reopened after closing for several days in December for asbestos remediation, and McClure is expected to reopen on Monday. Both rallies were held before scheduled town hall meetings at each school, during which concerned community members spoke to District officials about what was happening regarding the asbestos remediation.

At today’s rally, Council member Helen Gym called for heightened accountability for the state, the city, and the District leadership, including any current and future Board of Education members. The process for naming a new Board of Education launched today with the first meeting of a nominating panel; applications are being accepted until Jan. 23.

Mayor Kenney appoints the board, but this year, for the first time, City Council will have a say in the process. It is unclear whether the District’s building crisis will affect the appointments. Insiders said that all current members want to stay on the board.

Neither Gym nor Hughes signed the letter. The Notebook was told that this was because none of the currently affected schools is located in their Council districts. Gym is an at-large Council member, and Hughes’ district contains only a part of the city. Hughes has been the most vocal state legislator in calling for more state funds to address school building conditions in Philadelphia and elsewhere.

“This morning’s gathering was another important step in ensuring that facilities funding is prioritized in this year’s state budget, and we will continue to work tirelessly to ensure that this crisis is at the forefront of everyone’s conscience,” said Jordan in a statement issued after the morning rally. “I am proud that so many PFT members, parents, and our elected allies are continuing to partner with us in this critical advocacy work. Our message is clear: the Governor’s budget must include significant funding to address this ongoing crisis.”

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