As the Philadelphia School District’s asbestos crisis continues to unfold, its school board voted to spend at least $14 million to address environmental projects over the next few years.
The board Thursday night authorized the payment of $11.2 million for three firms for environmental oversight and design over three years, and up to $3 million to five firms for emergency asbestos abatement jobs over two years. It also ratified a $20,000 contract with Drexel University for the consulting services of Arthur Frank, an expert on the dangers of asbestos exposure.
The district will spend $20 million over three years for a management firm to oversee the district’s coming $500 million capital program, which will include school construction and repairs citywide.
The district has grappled with asbestos issues since September, after a longtime district teacher was diagnosed with mesothelioma, the cancer linked to asbestos exposure. Since then, six schools and an early childhood program have been closed, at least temporarily, because of asbestos problems, and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has sued over the environmental conditions.
Schools officials have estimated that the district has $4.5 billion in unmet capital needs, and Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said Thursday night that it would cost $125 million to meet the district’s goal of removing all environmental hazards from every area occupied by students in every city school -- $10 million a year to remove all asbestos, $15 million a year to remove all lead paint.
Some members of the board had sharp words for the district as it continues to manage asbestos removal and abatement projects at schools around the city.
Things are moving in the right direction, said board member Mallory Fix Lopez, but “there are almost daily indicators that the system as we know it is flawed. It’s not OK that the community is simply left to trust the process.”
Fix Lopez said she supported the board’s spending money to expand district capacity around environmental issues, but is unhappy about the $12,000 expenditure, which went in part to produce a series of videos designed to educate parents about asbestos.
“I find them insulting and find they don’t do a service,” Fix Lopez said.
Some have called for Hite’s removal in the wake of the environmental crisis. Fix Lopez dismissed that call.
“I believe you are the keystone for keeping us together,” she said to Hite. “There are, however, loose bricks and missing bricks around you.”
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Board member Christopher McGinley said he has confidence in the environmental plan the district introduced a few months into the school year.
But “that doesn’t excuse all the missteps of the past several months. As a member of the board I apologize to the teachers and the parents that have been subjected with these unhealthy conditions, and to the parents who have had to figure out what to do with kids for these 17 days. We need to do better than that,” McGinley said, referring to McClure Elementary, a school that just reopened after a protracted, asbestos-prompted break.
Joyce Wilkerson, the board president, urged the audience to remember that the district is coping with 200-plus schools, with the average building more than 70 years old and with 30 years of deferred maintenance.
“We’re looking at decades of work that we’re going to have to do moving forward,” Wilkerson said.
Still, many in the audience said, the district was not doing itself any favors by the uneven way it continues to communicate with communities.
Dana Carter, a district parent, decried “paranoia that is caused by a lack of transparency.”
Also on Thursday, the city principals’ union blasted the district for how it has handled the asbestos crisis.
The school system “is taking steps that we believe are unsafe,” said Robin Cooper, president of the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, the principals’ union.
CASA, at a news conference and in a letter sent to Hite and the board Thursday, urged the district to stop asking principals to conduct environmental assessments, as it has been doing. Principals at asbestos-affected schools are also being asked to sign off on letters saying that their buildings are safe.
“We have become the face of asbestos,” Cooper said. “We are not environmental experts. This is not what we went to school for. It is a crisis.”