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City Council to consider whether to add asbestos, mold to inspections of Philly school buildings

A view of the Philadelphia City Hall from Market Street in downtown Philadelphia.
School safety has become a hot button issue inside City Hall this year. Council members are set to decide if they want to add asbestos and mold to inspections of district schools.
Bruce Yuanyue Bi / Getty Images

After years of concerns from parents and teachers about dangerous physical conditions in Philadelphia’s public schools, the City Council is considering whether to add asbestos and mold to the items that city inspectors must look for when examining school buildings.

The council’s committee on licenses and inspection unanimously approved an amendment to an ordinance Friday that would create oversight mechanisms to address the school district’s ongoing facilities problems. Councilman Derek Green introduced the bill, which now will go to the full City Council for a vote. No date has been set for the vote.

If enacted, the amended ordinance would go into effect Aug. 1, and then the presence of asbestos and mold could affect whether a school building receives a special certificate of inspection allowing it to be open and occupied.

On Friday, Green called it a “very serious issue.”

“I can speak for so many other parents, caregivers, children, and employees in the school district who also have the same concerns regarding asbestos and mold,” he said, adding that the city needs to do more to ensure educational facilities are safe.

The amendment says, in part, that an educational building will be considered in “substantial compliance” if it is in line with “best practices for testing, remediation, abatement, cleaning, and management of asbestos, mold and other property-related hazards.”

But Reggie McNeil, the district’s chief operating officer, said the proposed ordinance would cause confusion by holding the Philadelphia school district to “best practices” without defining what that means. He said the district already is focused on the requirements of the federal Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act, or AHERA, and the city’s Asbestos Control Regulations, or ACR.

“The district understands and recognizes the concerns that this ordinance seeks to address. However, layering unclear, undefined, and potentially conflicting abatement obligations on a severely resource-constrained district will decrease productivity to manage asbestos and meet the existing regulatory obligations,” he wrote in his submitted testimony.

Parents and teachers have complained for years about the conditions in some Philadelphia schools, especially around asbestos, and have called for greater transparency about existing problems and repair efforts.

Before the first day of school this year, teachers at the Julia R. Masterman School worked outside, saying they felt unsafe inside the building because of unresolved asbestos hazards and a lack of credible information from the school district about the issue.

Dr. Cheryl Bettigole, the city’s health commissioner, said while the administration is supportive of the intentions of the bill, her office recommends that the inspections and the certification for mold be done by an independent third party.

“I just think that’s going to inspire more trust, and then those reports would be publicly available,” she said.

Bettigole noted that the school district does regular inspections of its buildings. But she said that while there are “best practices” for mold, there aren’t established thresholds to certify a building as mold free.

“And so the idea of certifying a building as mold free is what’s challenging, because there’s mold all around us,” she said.

She also said the city has two asbestos inspectors, but they are not trained and certified to the level that would be required in the proposed bill.

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan and Jerry Roseman, the union’s longtime director of environmental science, testified Friday. They said the district has not been transparent about the presence of asbestos at certain schools.

In his testimony, Jordan shared a series of letters exchanged this year with Superintendent William Hite regarding the problems. He referred to the proposed bill as a “critical layer of oversight.”

“I hope that you will look through the absolute crisis situation at the U. School, Furness High School, Wright Elementary, Baldi Elementary and note they are emblematic of issues we are seeing district-wide,” Jordan said. “These recommendations can, and should, be straightforward to implement.”

Roseman said he was recently prevented from inspecting a school building.

“The actions taken by the district have further eroded stakeholder trust and confidence in its ability to work with staff, students, parents and others in open, clear and meaningful ways to “ensure and verify safe school conditions,” he said.

Parent Saterria Kersey, who is the president of the Masterman Home and School Association, told the committee that the group has been fighting for information regarding asbestos since 2017. She and the group are in favor of the proposed ordinance.

“Unfortunately, the transparency and the honesty is just not there,” she said. “We have to do something to correct the issues that are in our schools. I’m asking you to pass this bill to have it continue to go on so that we can start to do something.”

But McNeil urged against passage, warning it would create “inconsistent and vague guidelines.” He said the district and community want the same thing, “safe and healthy schools.”

The City Council is not expected to take up the issue this month.

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