The Philadelphia school board signed off Thursday night on an $850,000 settlement with the teacher diagnosed with an especially lethal form of cancer after 30 years of teaching in city schools now known to have had damaged asbestos.
That the School District agreed to a settlement before a lawsuit was even filed by Lea DiRusso, the 51-year-old special-education teacher diagnosed with mesothelioma in August, is a sign of the gravity of the district’s environmental problems and the potential legal liability it faces.
Settlement details were not immediately available, but Sam Meirowitz, the New York-based lawyer who represents DiRusso, said no amount of money can fix the fact that DiRusso has a fatal, asbestos-caused cancer.
“While a mesothelioma victim certainly deserves more, we had to overcome very significant legal obstacles under Pennsylvania law in order to make this settlement happen,” Meirowitz said Thursday night. State law sets a $250,000 cap on personal injury claims brought against a government entity, although in some cases that figure can go up to $500,000.
DiRusso, who taught at two South Philadelphia elementary schools, Meredith and Nebinger, had hoped to work at least seven more years, but her illness forced her to retire early — a decision that devastated her.
“I love getting up in the morning and going to my job, to see my students,” DiRusso said in a 2019 Inquirer interview. “I feel like it was stolen.”
Since her diagnosis, DiRusso has gone through three rounds of chemotherapy and a risky surgery where doctors removed as much of her cancer as possible, then flushed her abdomen with a hot chemotherapy solution.
Here’s more from the board meeting:
Two proposed charter schools were voted down by the board, including one that was strongly opposed by the district high school with which it would have been in direct competition.
Tim Matheney, who proposed the High School of Health Sciences Leadership Charter School, said the school, which would have been in North Philadelphia and focused on partnerships with healthcare organizations and hands-on experiences for students, said there was room in the city for both his charter and Kensington Health Sciences Academy, the traditional public school.
“The city urgently needs schools like the one we propose — both charters and traditional public schools — so that more students are launched toward careers in health care,” Matheney told the board. “We can extend genuine hope to North Philadelphia families.”
The charter received no support from board members. Its proposal, board member Mallory Fix Lopez said, contained many oversights.
“The application has not made basic decisions about its program,” Fix Lopez said. She praised Kensington Health Sciences Academy, which, she said, “is not experimenting. They found the formula to what works.”
The board also voted down the Joan Myers Brown Academy, a would-be charter proposed by String Theory Schools. It was the charter’s second application.
Board President Joyce Wilkerson said she viewed the application with skepticism given the uneven performance of the charter provider’s existing schools. Its Philadelphia Charter School for Arts and Sciences, formerly a district-run school, struggles academically.
“This is clearly not a model that should be replicated in a charter school,” Wilkerson said.
Jason Corosanite, a String Theory founder, told the board he believed the performance of the organization’s other schools was immaterial to the new charter application.
Board members voted down a proposal from district administrators to make some staff affected by asbestos building closures work through their spring break.
Teachers from McClure Elementary, the Hunting Park school whose students lost 15 instructional days over a month because of asbestos problems in their building, turned out in force to protest the district’s proposal to take away their spring break to make up for missed days.
Unlike other schools where the district relocated children who had attended buildings closed by asbestos issues, McClure children and teachers were never given an alternative learning site.
“I do not think McClure students and staff should be punished by being forced to work through our spring break,” said Rachel Boschen, a third grade teacher at the school. She said the staff had proposed the district offer to pay teachers who chose to work through spring break, not penalize those who chose not to, and staff open teaching positions for the week with other district educators who wanted the extra work.
That proposal was rejected, Boschen said.
Ginger McHugh, another McClure teacher, said the staff was ready to work during the days students were out of school.
“We were asking for a transition plan. We were reaching out to families," McHugh said. "This was a district issue and building neglect.”
Board Vice President Wayne Walker led the charge to reject the administration’s proposal for McClure.
“It just seems to me that it’s a hardship created by the district," Walker said. "I hate to deprive them of an opportunity for a break.”
Only Wilkerson, Lee Huang, and Angela McIver supported the calendar changes; Walker, Fix Lopez, Leticia Egea-Hinton, Julia Danzy, and Christopher McGinley opposed them.