Philadelphia School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. on Tuesday announced a new environmental safety plan, pledging quicker response to asbestos concerns in school buildings and better communication with affected communities.
The news came as pressure mounted on the Philadelphia School District to better handle environmental concerns in the district’s stable of aging, challenged buildings. The school system has been buffeted by crisis after crisis since the summer — asbestos at the building that houses both Benjamin Franklin High School and Science Leadership Academy, at Meredith Elementary, and at T.M. Peirce Elementary.
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“Everything we’ve done hasn’t been enough,” the superintendent said at a news conference. “We have made mistakes and fallen short of my expectations in key areas, and have not fully confronted many of the challenges we have faced.”
Hite said the district was now “fully committed" to a plan that would have all asbestos reports investigated within 24 hours and to clearing a backlog of asbestos-related work orders by the beginning of next school year. He also promised more training on asbestos risks, and said the school system would hire more staff and consultants to tackle asbestos projects and educate the community. In the past, the district lacked the staff and resources to adequately handle its environmental issues.
The district will handle environmental safety and capital projects more proactively and more effectively, the superintendent pledged.
Of the $500 million the district recently borrowed as part of its regular capital project cycle, $12 million will be designated to deal with the asbestos backlog, Hite said. But he acknowledged that will fall far short of the total the district needs to tackle all known lead and asbestos issues in a city where the average public school building is more than 70 years old.
It would take an additional $150 million in operating funds to fix all the asbestos and lead problems in the district, Hite said. The school board cannot raise revenue itself; it will have to look to the state and City Hall for those additional funds.
The superintendent was flanked Tuesday by local and state officials, who echoed his call for Harrisburg to come through with much more funding for Philadelphia facilities issues. That’s likely to be a tough ask, where the politicians in power are generally wary of Philadelphia school requests.
Joyce Wilkerson, the school board president, also addressed the burgeoning environmental crisis.
“The board is ready to hold the district accountable for achieving the aggressive goals it sets," Wilkerson said.
Hite noted that a Philadelphia teacher’s recent diagnosis with mesothelioma helped spur action.
“This has heightened people’s anxiety around asbestos and it’s also created an opportunity for us to take a stronger look around our processes in these issues,” he said.
As Hite spoke Tuesday, plans were being made to get students and staff out of T.M. Peirce Elementary, where known damaged asbestos remained untouched and un-investigated by the district until The Inquirer began asking questions about the asbestos a month and a half after the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers first flagged the hazards.
The School District also moved this week to remove preschoolers from the Pratt School in North Philadelphia, which was closed as an elementary school building in 2013 but kept open as a location for early childhood education.
The district had first recommended Peirce students be relocated to Pratt, a proposal it withdrew after the teachers’ union raised concerns about asbestos at Pratt. The district said at the time that it was unaware of those environmental concerns.
Peirce students are instead likely to be moved to rental space on Henry Avenue in East Falls, the site of the former Eastern University Academy Charter School. Peirce parents toured the site Tuesday morning, and students could be moved there as soon as Dec. 2.
What is not yet clear is whether the Peirce students will ever return to their existing school building at 23rd and Cambria Streets. It has long been scheduled to be torn down and replaced with a new school in this capital project cycle, but officials said the new building won’t be ready for several years. The district said it planned to move students back into Peirce when asbestos removal work was complete in early 2020, but some parents pushed back on that.
At the news conference Tuesday and at a parent meeting at Peirce Monday afternoon, Hite said he knew the district had let parents down and that communities are wary of his promises.
Parents learned of the asbestos at Peirce from news stories, not from the district.
“We own that,” Hite said at Peirce. “We own that as a district. We have to get much better as a district at giving out information.”
Brandon Williams, a Peirce parent whose daughter is in first grade, said he would be slow to trust what the district says in the future. He and others are concerned that schools like Peirce, with a higher concentration of poor children and children of color, get de-prioritized when other schools have repairs fast-tracked.
“How the hell did you miss this?” Williams asked Hite on Monday.
A few weeks ago, Councilwoman Cindy Bass stood outside Peirce, angrily demanding answers from the district about the asbestos problems there.
On Tuesday, she stood with Hite and said that after many “spirited conversations,” she felt that things were moving in the right direction.
Councilwoman Helen Gym also joined Hite, thanking the parents who have organized and demanded better for their children. Gym said the new environmental safety plan was “a major step forward.”
Still, she said, “it is a sin that our kids go to schools that are sometimes unhealthy and unsafe.”
Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.) said Tuesday that the environmental problems are “fundamentally an issue of political will,” and that the state has the capacity to fund school repairs and renovations.
“There is a righteous outrage that needs to occur,” Hughes told the Inquirer Editorial Board. “More hell needs to be raised.”
Of the School District, Hughes said, leaders have “got to rebuild the trust."
“We all have to be very thoughtful about how we go down this path," he said. “If this doesn’t work out, the next step is really closing down schools en masse. And then, what happens then?”