Standing in the library of an Overbrook elementary school, Gov. Tom Wolf on Wednesday announced the state would spend $4.3 million to help remove lead paint from Philadelphia public schools.
Including the millions the state paid last year to complete such projects, that means Pennsylvania has allocated almost $12 million to fixing environmental hazards in the Philadelphia School District.
“No parent should have to worry about the health risk of sending their child to school, and no student should be at risk from lead paint,” said Wolf, who was flanked by city and state lawmakers.
The governor said the spending was spurred by Toxic City, The Inquirer series that detailed health threats posed to children by lead paint, asbestos, and other issues present inside many Philadelphia schools.
Toxic City “shone a spotlight on conditions that exist in many of the public schools right here in Philadelphia. We feel an even greater sense of urgency than we did last year,” Wolf said, calling The Inquirer’s work “a remarkable series” and “a call to action.”
To date, the school system has invested $18.6 million on lead-paint stabilization projects, said chief operating officer Danielle Floyd. The new state funds would be in addition to that spending.
By the time school starts on Sept. 3, 32 elementary schools will have had lead-paint stabilization projects completed, Floyd said. That’s a fraction of the 200 schools that must be remediated. The new state money will pay for lead abatement at an additional four to five schools, Floyd said.
The city late last year passed legislation requiring city schools to certify all buildings as “safe from lead-based paint hazards” or meet a 90-day deadline to repair damaged paint.
Wolf and other dignitaries gathered at Edward Heston Elementary on North 54th Street, a building where assistant principal Audrey Fields said at least a few classrooms typically had peeling lead paint in the 18 years she has been at the school. Teachers worried that small children would touch paint flakes or put them in their mouths, and so they coped as best they could, by putting posters or other decorations on top of the problem areas.
“It was just a Band-Aid,” Fields said.
Heston was a work zone Wednesday, site of a paint stabilization project. Up and down hallways, walls and windows were covered to keep dust from clinging to them, with active work sites cordoned off. In all, 80,000 square feet will be remediated at Heston, officials said.
“Now, we don’t have to worry about it,” said Fields. “The teachers are going to be so excited when they come back.”
Wolf and others stressed that while the state money will help the district complete its lead-paint work, more funds will be needed. Earlier this year, he introduced a plan to seek a severance tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling that he said would raise $4.5 billion to fund infrastructure projects across the state, including school cleanup work.
As his other shale tax plans have been, this one was met with resistance from Harrisburg Republicans who control the state legislature.
Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said that Wednesday’s announcement was a key step.