As reports of asbestos in Philly schools pile up, teachers union calls for ‘rapid-response’ team in the district
“The district’s response has been wholly insufficient,” Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan said at a Wednesday press news conference.
Hundreds of reports of damaged asbestos inside city schools languish unresolved, despite Philadelphia School District promises that it would take quicker action to address environmental hazards in its aging buildings, union officials said Wednesday, unveiling a plan they say could help address the backlog.
The union representatives rolled out their proposal as their national leader joined the chorus highlighting concerns about the city’s schools. Many districts with old buildings must cope with asbestos, but the Philadelphia issue is particularly egregious, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten said.
“What more evidence do we need that we have a public health crisis that needs to be solved in the City of Brotherly Love?” said Weingarten, standing with teachers, parents, and students outside Hopkinson Elementary in Juniata, the latest Philadelphia school closed because of damaged asbestos.
The union officials proposed solutions for the district include adding an experienced rapid-response team that would expand the district’s capacity to quickly address reports of damaged asbestos. The workers would come from the Laborers District Council of Philadelphia, but it was unclear how they would be paid.
Jordan cited examples of the hundreds of reports backed up in the district’s system — suspected damaged asbestos running through the kindergarten wing, with one large area next to children’s cubbies at Fitzpatrick Elementary in the Northeast; asbestos split open in a first-floor classroom at Barton Elementary in Feltonville; a deep hole in a classroom wall at Olney Elementary, covered with a thin sheet of paper.
At a separate news conference later Wednesday, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. did not dispute the district’s backlog of asbestos reports. He said the school system has more complaints than its own staff can handle, that it prioritizes the most serious reports, and that he was eager to discuss the PFT’s solution as soon as Thursday.
"That would be something we would welcome,” Hite said of the rapid-response team. The superintendent seemed frustrated with the union’s public blasting of the asbestos backlog but said he would continue to work with the PFT, the city, and outside authorities to manage the asbestos crisis.
“When adults are fighting, children are harmed,” Hite said. “We have to come to agreement. If we come to agreement on this, we can resolve these problems a lot faster.”
The district is currently working at five schools where asbestos damage is deemed an “imminent hazard,” said Jim Creedon, the district’s interim facilities chief. Four remain open with work areas sealed off.
Years before damaged asbestos inside city schools became a hot-button issue, the district acknowledged it had identified $4.5 billion worth of needed repairs for its aging buildings, a fact that Hite underscored Thursday.
“We have lots of old buildings, lots of old schools that need a lot of attention,” he said. The school board recently voted to spend millions more on asbestos removal in the coming years, and Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed spending $1 billion to fix asbestos and other environmental hazards across Pennsylvania.
Hite said the district has already spent $19 million more than it budgeted this year for asbestos removal and that budget was $40 million more than it spent on asbestos removal the prior year.
Hopkinson students reported to school Wednesday for the first time since last Friday. The school building remained closed, but students will spread among three other buildings until officials deem the main building safe for re-occupancy.
The Philadelphia School District is investigating whether workers spread asbestos there when replacing drop ceiling tiles last summer. Hite has called the possible asbestos damage “a serious matter."
Those areas of concern at Hopkinson were not flagged by the district but by a Hopkinson teacher who alerted the PFT and district. The staffer reported “massive amounts of dust and debris, which teachers unknowingly swept up.”
Jordan said the Hopkinson incident was a “horrifying breach” of environmental safety.
Brenda DeLeon, the mother of three Hopkinson students, said her children deserve better.
“We just want them to be safe,” said DeLeon.
At the news conference, Weingarten said it would take federal, state, and local resources to address environmental issues inside Philadelphia schools, and was incredulous that federal officials were in Philadelphia discussing education issues Wednesday and failed to mention the district’s environmental crisis.
“How dare Vice President Pence and [Education Secretary] Betsy DeVos be in this town today and not deal with the asbestos in these buildings,” she said.
Staff writer Wendy Ruderman contributed to this article.