The vast network of old buildings that make up the School District of Philadelphia has become the source of an environmental crisis, with asbestos hazards shuttering schools, and district management slow to create and communicate a plan that assures parents, teachers, and stakeholders that the problem is under control.
At the beginning of the school year, the joint complex of Ben Franklin High and the Science Leadership Academy on North Broad Street closed. Asbestos hazards forced the Philadelphia School District to shut down T.M. Peirce Elementary in North Philly, Carnell Elementary in Oxford Circle, and Franklin Learning Center in Spring Garden. McClure Elementary in Hunting Park shut down for two weeks, then reopened, only to close again after two days. Most recently, Hopkinson Elementary closed indefinitely.
Back in November, when the count of closed schools was still only four, School District Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. touted a new environmental safety plan. When announcing the plan, Hite said: “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.”
With three new school closures since, the facts on the ground suggest that the district is still falling short. In January, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers filed a lawsuit against the district, accusing it of showing “a disregard for the health” of teachers and students.
While decades in the making, the crisis has unfolded during the first term of the school board that brought the schools back under the responsibility of the city and the mayor. And with that term expiring, Mayor Jim Kenney has an opportunity to make a statement about whether he believes the first board has been successful and make necessary changes.
On Wednesday, Kenney received a list of 27 names of potential board members from the city’s education nominating panels — a process that education advocates say was opaque and closed to the public. Eight of the nine current board members were renominated; the ninth slot is vacant due to a resignation. This is an opportunity for Mayor Kenney — to signal that he is hearing the students, teachers, and staff, and parents who say they’ve lost confidence in the current leadership. This crisis deserves more than a rubber stamp.
The responsibility for the safety of children in schools lies with Mayor Kenney. So far, Kenney has been mostly silent, letting Hite and the Board of Education be the face of the crisis. But both the superintendent and the school board members serve at the pleasure of the mayor.
The challenge with toxic schools is not only of leadership but also of resources. That fight goes through Harrisburg, where the General Assembly needs to approve Gov. Tom Wolf’s request for $1 billion to be allocated to remediate lead and asbestos in public schools throughout the commonwealth.
Getting the money won’t matter if leadership is ill-equipped to use it to fix this problem quickly and regain the trust of the community. If the School District and Board of Education can’t deliver, Kenney should either make leadership changes or prepare to take full responsibility for the crisis.