As Philadelphia continues to grapple with asbestos hazards in its schools, state and local elected officials joined with teachers and parents Wednesday morning to demand state money to make repairs.
Standing outside Carnell Elementary in Oxford Circle, which has been closed since Dec. 20 due to damaged asbestos, speakers at the news conference organized by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers said the state needed to step up with funding.
“We’ve got over $300 million in the state’s Rainy-Day Fund. Let’s make it rain for these school buildings, and take some of that money and put it into these buildings to fix them up,” said State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.).
State Rep. Joe Hohenstein (D., Phila.) said Gov. Tom Wolf “gave away a lot of power in the last budget” and “has to put this issue, and the infrastructure for public schools around the state, into the priorities of his budget.”
The district has closed six schools since September following the discovery of damaged asbestos. While asbestos is present in most of the district’s buildings, it doesn’t pose a health risk unless it is disturbed, allowing it to release fibers that can cause cancer and other illnesses if ingested.
“I never would have imagined this would be keeping me out of teaching, never,” Tina Asman, a Carnell teacher who has worked in the district for 23 years, said Wednesday. “We need to get our kids back to school.” A Carnell parent, Rishawn Reynolds, said she had been making lesson plans for her fourth grade daughter at home.
The School District, which has taken heat for its handling of the ongoing problems, has pledged faster responses to asbestos concerns and better communication with families.
But Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has said addressing the full scope of the district’s known lead and asbestos issues would cost $150 million. The district cannot raise money on its own and says it would need to look to the state and city for that funding.
The state has given added money to Philadelphia over the last two years to help address environmental hazards in schools, steering $12 million to the district between 2018 and 2019 for lead paint removal.
Wolf “agrees that more funding is needed to protect the health of students and teachers,” said spokesperson J.J. Abbott. He said the governor “continues to urge the legislature” to support a severance tax on natural gas drilling to fund infrastructure improvements. Republican legislative leaders have repeatedly rejected severance tax proposals.
Several officials Wednesday called for the state to spend $170 million, the figure the teachers union has put on the district’s broader facilities troubles.
City Councilmember Helen Gym supported that request but also called for local accountability, saying she would be reviewing school board members selected or reappointed as part of a nominating process that begins Wednesday. Mayor Jim Kenney appoints the nine-member board, but Council has confirmation power.