With Mayor Jim Kenney’s blessing, the city has hired an environmental firm to provide oversight on the Philadelphia School District’s asbestos abatement efforts, which have often been marred by problems.
The move comes amid strained relations between the district and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which monitors environmental work inside city schools.
The city will pay Arc Environmental, a Baltimore-based firm, up to $90,000 through the end of the school year to help the district and the PFT agree on asbestos abatement protocols.
The firm is also “another layer of transparency, and to make sure there are best practices," said Rich Lazer, deputy mayor for labor.
The district has closed 10 schools since early fall because of asbestos contamination. After longtime teacher Lea DiRusso was diagnosed in late summer 2019 with mesothelioma, an asbestos-linked cancer, the school system stepped up environmental inspections inside its more than 200 buildings.
The stepped-up scrutiny has meant more “imminent hazards” are being discovered in classrooms, gyms, and common areas where children and teachers gather.
Officials have made it plain that the district does not have the money or the capacity to complete all the work that must be done to make schools safe from asbestos. It has also been hampered by personnel shifts — the district reassigned its chief operating officer earlier this year, and its environmental manager recently resigned. Its current facilities chief is a part-time consultant.
District officials have acknowledged that asbestos work done by their own teams and outside contractors has been shoddy at times. The district’s inspector general is investigating what went wrong in the construction and asbestos work at Benjamin Franklin High School, a job that could end up costing the school system $50 million.
Lazer said that Arc "will make sure things are up to snuff, that procedures are followed and no corners are cut.”
The city moved in, Lazer said, because “there’s distrust among some of the labor organizations and the district on how things are done." He said he was confident that if disputes arose on whether to close a school while asbestos work is completed, as has been the case in the past, Arc would bring the two sides to consensus.
Arc has overseen large-scale environmental work at universities and state and federal sites.
Kenney, in a statement, said that Arc’s extensive "experience will help them fulfill this important task of making sure that the District’s Asbestos Abatement Program is jointly finalized and trusted by all parties, and that it will best serve our students and families.”
The district, the PFT, and 32BJ, the school system’s blue-collar workers’ union, all gave their blessing to hire Arc.
“Our children and teachers deserve our best," School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said in a statement. “That is why we have been working with the PFT for the last year to define a set of protocols and procedures on how to manage the asbestos repair and removal process in the School District. We are looking forward to working with Arc to finalize this process for our current projects and prepare for even more projects in the coming months.”
The district already pays several environmental firms to conduct federally mandated asbestos inspections in its schools and to oversee abatement jobs. The teachers’ union has its own environmental scientist with asbestos expertise. The two sides, both well-schooled asbestos regulations, have been struggling to address thorny questions surrounding whether to close schools with multiple areas of damaged asbestos in student-occupied spaces.
“I don’t know if we’ve gotten ourselves in the middle of a therapy session between two parties that don’t agree,” Arc president R. Shannon Cavaliere said Wednesday night. “Hopefully, we didn’t get in over our heads with a real bee’s nest.”
Jerry Roseman, the PFT’s director of environmental safety, said the PFT has explained and insisted on best practices for some time but was “hopeful that this process, and the support of the mayor, will result in significant and important improvements in addressing asbestos and other environmental hazard conditions in our schools.”
Arc project manager Stacy Kahatapitiya, who has worked on asbestos jobs at schools in D.C. and Baltimore, said “exposure concerns related to asbestos” will be evaluated on a “case-by-case basis.”
“I can’t make a blanket statement about whether a damaged material is `safe,' but the ultimate goal of administering any asbestos program is to be able to safely manage asbestos-containing material,” Kahatapitiya wrote in an email.
Since October, district officials have temporarily closed nine schools and one early childhood learning center because of asbestos hazards, prompting the relocation of thousands of students across the city. The list includes three high schools: Benjamin Franklin, Science Leadership Academy, and Franklin Learning Center. Six elementary schools: T.M. Pierce, Alexander McClure, Carnell, Hopkinson, Clara Barton, and James Sullivan. And a Head Start program at Pratt Early Childhood Center.