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Officials, PFT call for ‘disaster declaration’ for Philly schools

The coalition’s latest demand comes as two elementary schools – Barton in Feltonville and Sullivan in Frankford – were closed and Richmond Elementary in Port Richmond faces a weekend inspection.

(Photo: Bill Hangley)

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

A coalition of state and local lawmakers, along with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, called on Gov. Wolf to issue a formal “disaster declaration” for the School District of Philadelphia, freeing up cash to clean up asbestos and other toxins in the city’s aging schools.

“We have a Rainy Day Fund – and it’s raining in many of our schools,” said State Rep. Sharif Street, a member of the Fund our Facilities Coalition, which made its demands Thursday at the Cione Recreation Center in Port Richmond. “We have repairs we’ve waited 30 years to make.”

State Sen. Vince Hughes said: “If the court was warped, the Sixers wouldn’t play,” but Philadelphia students have to attend dangerous schools or be declared truant. “We’re approaching a situation where we have to shut the whole thing down.”

Also on hand were State Sen. Larry Farnese, U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle, State Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, and City Council members Isaiah Thomas and Mark Squilla.

“It’s a shame we have to do to this multiple times,” said Squilla, who called on Wolf to step up the funding and for the District to improve its “cooperation and collaboration” over asbestos and toxin issues.

District officials must work better with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, contractors, and school communities, Squilla said.

“Even when we fix things, we have to go back and make sure we did it right,” he said. “ We can bring in as much money as we want, but if we don’t collaborate, it’s not going to work.”

The coalition’s call is unlikely to produce fast results. Wolf told the Philadelphia Inquirer on Thursday that he hadn’t been given a specific proposal, but agreed that the toxin issue “has to be addressed quickly.” Money from the Rainy Day Fund can only be spent with the approval of two-thirds of the Republican-controlled legislature – a heavy lift for Wolf, a Democrat. Wolf’s proposed budget includes $1 billion for toxin cleanup statewide, but approval is months away, if it comes at all.

But funds are essential for manpower, said PFT president Jerry Jordan. “One of the reasons we’re calling for the declaration of emergency is because the District needs to have the funding to hire a workforce,” he said. “The lack of capacity is huge. You’re not going to be able to solve the problem if you don’t have the personnel.”

The coalition’s latest demand comes as two schools – Feltonville’s Barton Elementary, and Frankford’s Sullivan Elementary – were closed Thursday and Friday, and a third, Richmond Elementary in Port Richmond, prepares for an emergency inspection after reports of improper repairs and ongoing concerns.

On Thursday, Richmond Elementary parent Stefanie Marrero joined the politicians at the podium. “We need those funds released now,” Marrero said. “Not next week, not next month – now.”

Weekend inspections planned at Richmond

At Richmond Elementary, reports of improper asbestos repairs mean a new round of inspections will take place this weekend, conducted jointly by the District and the PFT.

After Thursday’s media event concluded, the PFT’s longtime environmental specialist, Jerry Roseman, spoke with Richmond parents and staff about the cleanup plan. Roseman told the group that the District’s previous inspections and repairs at Richmond had been “reasonable, but limited. … There has been work done, but it hasn’t been enough.”

A new round of inspections will re-examine several known problem areas – including the attic and several classrooms – along with the rest of the building, and then the District and PFT will develop a complete plan, Roseman said. Staff can expect to see some short-term fixes, along with a full report with room-by-room data about contamination and cleanup.

Roseman said that it’s unclear whether “total abatement” at Richmond is possible by the summer, but he said he was optimistic that the new round of inspections will be detailed enough to produce a trustworthy plan.

“Sometimes there’s a lot of money spent, and it doesn’t get done right,” said Roseman. “We want to do it right.”

Bill Hangley / The Notebook

Richmond Elementary teacher Kathryn Lagara speaks, flanked by Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan and teacher Meghan Amadio. (Photo: Bill Hangley)

Richmond staff were pleased to see their school get some needed attention, but said that the toxin issue represents just the tip of an iceberg of neglect. Dirty floors, rodent droppings, and messy halls are seen regularly, said teacher Kathryn Lagara, and students and staff alike deserve better.

“There needs to be a real commitment to creating a better environment for our teachers, for our students,” said Lagara, now in her seventh year at Richmond. “Many of us choose to work in Philadelphia. … The fact that we shouldn’t be afforded the same things that children and teachers in more affluent areas have is astounding.”

Her colleague Meghan Amadio, now in her fourth year at Richmond, said that the whole experience has left her wondering about her family’s future with the District.

“My son is 4 – and I’m not sure I want to send him to a Philadelphia school,” said Amadio. “I can’t send my son to a toxic school. So what are my options? I move? I pay for Catholic school? I’m in a quandary myself.”

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