Driven by health, safety, and facility repairs urgently needed for Philadelphia district schools, labor leaders, and state and local lawmakers on Wednesday announced proposed legislation that would provide about $125 million to repair and improve schools locally and statewide.
State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.) said he will sponsor two bills in an attempt to establish a program that would direct $85 million to the School District of Philadelphia — nearly half the estimated funding needed to clean up schools; $30 million to 134 poverty-stricken school districts throughout the state dealing with similar building concerns; and $10 million for other needed repairs.
“On too many occasions, on too many days, we send our kids to schools that are toxic,” Hughes said as he stood below a mural at Richard Wright Elementary in Strawberry Mansion during a news conference called by the Fund Our Facilities Coalition . “They’re filled with lead, they’re filled with asbestos, rodent infestations, all kinds of things like that, and we send our children to schools in that kind of condition."
The Fund Our Facilities Coalition, a group made of union leaders and state and local lawmakers, estimated in March that it would cost about $170 million to make district schools safe, clean, and healthy. The proposed money would be used to alleviate lead and asbestos problems illuminated by The Inquirer’s reporting on toxic schools, replace leaky windows and roofs, install new heating systems, upgrade bathrooms, upgrade electrical service, pay for more exterminators, and address other issues that plague many city schools.
The Democratic-led coalition’s proposal, announced as legislators in Harrisburg enter the home stretch in their annual budget negotiations, faces an uphill battle in the GOP-controlled House and Senate.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan said he knows getting the legislation passed “will not be easy,” but said: "We have a plan for giving our children, educators, the schools they deserve, and we won’t rest until this is reality.”
Hughes said he will present two separate bill options: Senate Bill 555, which would establish a $125 million program funded from several commonwealth special funds; and S.B. 556, which would establish a $125 million program funded from the current state budget surplus.
Hughes said there were “several options” to fund the bill, including transferring dollars from existing state programs or tapping into the state’s budget surplus, which he said is expected to exceed $850 million by June 30.
State Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, also a Philadelphia Democrat, said she will also introduce “companion legislation” in the House to ensure that schools statewide are “safe, clean, and healthy buildings for our students.”
“In schools across the state … children are suffering in toxic schools facing many of the same conditions our kids in Philly face,” Fiedler said.
Hughes said despite the challenge of winning support in the Republican-controlled legislature, “We have a governor [Democrat Tom Wolf] who has expressed a willingness to want to address this issue, and I think a growing number of legislators are seeing that this is a real problem in their respective communities, in their respective districts.”
Jennifer Kocher, spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre) said there are already “significant supplemental budget requests to consider from the administration.”
“Both House and Senate Republicans as well as the governor also have called for money to be dedicated to the Rainy Day Fund, which underscores a governing philosophy where we don’t need to go on a spending spree just because we have some uncommitted funds,” Kocher wrote in an email.
A spokesperson for House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) said GOP members won’t be able to comment or vocalize support “until we see the final proposal and the exact details that are in it.”