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Fix unsafe conditions inside Philly schools, new group says

Banding together to address what they say are "unacceptable" conditions inside many Philadelphia schools, a broad coalition of parents, environmental advocates, City Council members, and labor unions on Wednesday announced it had formed to partner with and pressure the city school system concerning health and safety issues.

Lead paint, asbestos, mold, rodent infestations, and other potential threats to students' health exist inside many of the Philadelphia School District's 200-plus buildings.

"Sadly, many toxic materials and deficient conditions are too commonplace in our schools and, in particular, the most extreme risks and worst conditions are present in our poorest and most vulnerable neighborhoods," a statement announcing the new Philly Healthy Schools Initiative said.

The district has said its facilities need about $5 billion in repairs.

"In the 21st century, this is unacceptable," said David Masur, executive director of PennEnvironment, a statewide advocacy organization and lead partner in the coalition announced Wednesday at City Hall. The group also includes the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and City Council members Derek Green, Helen Gym, and Blondell Reynolds Brown.

The organization has issued a series of policy recommendations, ranging from more and better information-sharing with parents surrounding environmental issues in schools to creating an environmental health task force to help guide remediation work.

School officials said they have made safe, clean, environmentally friendly schools a top priority -- the district was one of nine systems nationwide awarded a U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon for its sustainability work. They recently made available an exhaustive multiyear, school-by-school list of facilities conditions, including the issues noted at each and cost to repair them.

"We are continuing to work to provide our students with equitable access to green, sustainable resources," Fran Burns, the district's chief of operations, said in a statement. "We have a detailed Facility Condition Assessment report, which is guiding our $1.1 billion capital improvement plan, and we will continue to work and engage with outside partners as we work to create great schools close to where children live."

Kendra Brooks, a parent with three children who attend district schools, said she was "alarmed" by conditions inside some schools.

She recalled taking her daughter, a kindergartner at Edward T. Steel School, to the bathroom and being alarmed by signs that warned children against drinking the water coming from the taps. What, Brooks said, if she wasn't with her daughter, who had not yet learned to read?

"In this day and age, adequate building conditions for children should be a no-brainer," Brooks said.

Jerry Roseman, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers' director of environmental health and safety, has been sounding the alarm about Philadelphia school building conditions for decades.

He routinely sees mold growth, pest infestations, asbestos issues, and other problems, he said.

"These are symptoms of underlying building condition problems," he said. "The problems are widespread and need to be urgently addressed."

Asked if City Council would support a tax increase to generate more money to fix school conditions, the Council members in attendance said that they would instead focus on ensuring the money that is available is prioritized properly.

"There's ways we can address this with no additional dollars, just with information," Green said.

District officials said they have already implemented many of the advocates' demands, and emphasized the national recognition they have earned on environmental issues.

The school system's proposed capital budget includes $256.5 million for work at 81 schools and school facilities.