A group of federal and local officials is preparing to ask Gov. Tom Wolf to issue a formal disaster declaration for the Philadelphia School District, citing the growing number of school closures because of potentially toxic asbestos exposure.
Their push, detailed at a Thursday news conference, came as district officials closed two more city schools — Barton Elementary in Feltonville and Sullivan Elementary in Frankford — because of damaged asbestos. So far this school year, nine schools and an early childhood program have been shut because of the potential danger to children and staff.
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In 2018, Wolf formally declared a state of emergency over the opioid epidemic, which allowed the state broader latitude to fight a public health problem.
Jerry Jordan, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president, said such a declaration is necessary “because we need something to happen now. Children attend this school system, and our members are working in these buildings every day."
U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle (D., Phila.), also speaking at the news conference, called the district’s environmental situation “a four-alarm fire. We need help from Washington, and we need help from Harrisburg.”
State Sen. Larry Farnese said Philadelphia students were being treated as second-class citizens.
“How many more schools do we need to have closed before Harrisburg takes action and recognizes that we are in crisis?” Farnese asked.
Asked about the possible disaster declaration during an unrelated visit to West Chester University on Thursday morning, Wolf said he had not yet been approached about such a move, but agreed that Philadelphia’s asbestos problem “has to be addressed quickly.”
Wolf last month proposed approving $1 billion in state funding to schools throughout the state for remediation of asbestos and lead. The money would come from an expansion of Pennsylvania’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program.
But that remains a proposal, with unlikely prospects of success in the Republican-controlled legislature.
Lyndsay Kensinger, a spokesperson for the governor, addressed a suggestion made Thursday by some legislators that Wolf dip into the state’s Rainy-Day Fund to pay for a disaster declaration.
“The governor cannot take money from the Rainy-Day Fund without two-thirds legislative approval,” she said. “Declaring a state of emergency would not provide any additional funds for this purpose.”
The governor’s proposed budget contains more than $1.1 billion to be spent on reducing the risk of asbestos, lead, and similar toxins from schools, day-care centers, and other locations, Kensinger added.
At Barton and Sullivan, asbestos problems were flagged in part by staff, who submitted photos of areas they suspected of damage through the PFT’s app.
In response to concerns from staff, Jerry Roseman, the PFT’s environmental scientist, said he went to Sullivan this month and saw several areas of damaged asbestos, including an “imminent hazard” in Room 300. He alerted district officials, who closed off the room.
The district had completed a federally mandated inspection of Sullivan in early December. That inspection, by a district-hired environmental firm, flagged about 50 areas of asbestos in questionable condition, Roseman said.
But only one area had been fixed, Roseman said, when he visited Sullivan on Feb. 5. The other areas were considered minor and left alone.
Of equal concern were several areas of damaged lead paint that Roseman saw during his inspection, including in the gymnasium, which doubles as a cafeteria.
“There was damaged lead paint right over lunchroom tables,” said Roseman.
Contractors are in the midst of a classroom modernization project at Sullivan, and “it appeared as if lead paint was disturbed during the construction work without following the district’s own in-place procedures for lead paint,” Roseman said — a breach similar to one found at Hopkinson Elementary in Juniata, where workers apparently replaced ceiling tiles without precautions necessary for material adjacent to asbestos-insulated pipes.
The decision to close Barton was made Wednesday after Roseman and district environmental consultants walked through the school and documented several areas of damaged asbestos, also discovering an attic “heavily contaminated” by the carcinogen.
As in so many Philadelphia School District buildings, the Sullivan and Barton situations arose as “a result of long-term neglect,” Roseman said. “All of these schools were found to have damaged asbestos in multiple locations that are normally occupied by students and staff.”
Jordan said the district agreed to a quick closure, a change from some closures that the district fought.
“We’ve been battling with them about schools that needed to be closed — like McClure and Ben Franklin — and they resisted,” Jordan said. “But this was the right decision.”