A day after news broke that a longtime city teacher has a deadly cancer often linked to asbestos, City Councilman At-Large Derek Green announced legislation Thursday that would give the Philadelphia School District $10 million to deal with environmental hazards in schools across the city.
Green wants to give the school system a one-time grant that would come from the city’s fund balance, which has exceeded projections over the last three years. The money would pay for just a fraction of the environmental work needed to be done in the district.
The funding proposal was prompted by news Wednesday that a city teacher has mesothelioma, an asbestos-linked cancer, and a coalition’s call for $100 million to handle asbestos and other environmental hazards inside district buildings.
The career teacher has spent 30 years in Philadelphia classrooms, first at Nebinger Elementary and most recently at Meredith Elementary. The schools are blocks apart in South Philadelphia, and both have known asbestos issues.
Green, who is up for reelection in November, said he came up with the legislation after learning of the teacher’s diagnosis. He and other members of the Fund our Facilities coalition believe the state must provide the lion’s share of funding to fix the environmental issues.
“It’s such an urgent issue,” said Green, whose mother spent decades teaching in the district and whose son attends a district school. “The state needs to do their share, but we need to put some skin in the game, from my perspective. It allows us to say, ‘We did our part here.’ ”
Green introduced the legislation with support from nine council members — Helen Gym, Jannie Blackwell, Mark Squilla, Cherelle Parker, Blondell Reynolds Brown, Curtis Jones, Allan Domb, Bill Greenlee, and Cindy Bass — and said he believes the bill has a good chance of passing.
Council President Darrell L. Clarke, in a statement, declined to say whether he supported the bill.
“City Council is well aware of the significance of the problems with infrastructure in Philadelphia’s public schools, and stands committed to addressing this problem in meaningful ways,” Clarke said. “We look forward to addressing these issues with the School District and the Kenney administration.”
The teacher, whose identity is being withheld at her request, was being hospitalized for treatment, her lawyer said.
Doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore diagnosed the teacher with the rare cancer a few weeks after she sought treatment for severe abdominal distension while on vacation at the Jersey Shore, said Benjamin Shein, the lawyer.
Mesothelioma is a terminal illness; the teacher was told her only treatment options were experimental, and could prolong survival but not cure her.
“It is a horrific and painful death, both for the victim and for the victim’s family,” Shein said. “There’s not much worse of a disease you can get.”
Teachers’ union president Jerry Jordan has said that the problem could be much more widespread. Philadelphia Federation of Teachers officials have estimated that 175 district schools contain asbestos, and Meredith, with thousands of square feet of asbestos, is not the worst.
The teacher’s case is “the tip of the iceberg,” Shein said. “Those are only two schools of many. You have the other teachers, and then you have the children with lungs that are not fully developed, and these fibers just embed in them for decades and may or may not cause a problem. It’s fairly rare, but a small amount of exposure can still cause the disease. She just happened to be one of the unlucky ones."
Though the district has already disclosed in federal documents that it knows Meredith has asbestos issues, Chief Operating Officer Danielle Floyd said Wednesday that she would direct workers to speed up an already-planned visual asbestos inspection of Meredith.
Floyd has also said the district believes its buildings are safe.
Megan Lello, a district spokesperson, said the district welcomed the possible city cash infusion.
“We will continue to work to advance our goal to provide welcoming learning and work environments for students and staff,” Lello said in a statement.
Mayor Jim Kenney said that the district is prioritizing capital improvements including asbestos and lead remediation, and that his administration needs to review Green’s proposal, but generally “supports all efforts to improve school building conditions because our kids and school staff deserve high quality and safe learning environments,” he said in a statement.
Asbestos fibers, which can be found in virtually every school built before 1980, or the majority of the district’s aging buildings, are hazardous when airborne. They are not harmful when intact, but can be easily stirred up and linger in the air for hours or days.
Shein called for all schools built before 1980 to be shut down until asbestos is safely removed.
“It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to do adequate remediation and removal while the schools are occupied,” said Shein, whose firm specializes in asbestos cases. If they do not, more people will become ill, he warned.