The School District has gone to great lengths recently to describe how it collaborates and shares data on school building conditions with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. However, as with District officials' statement about finding “trace” amounts of mold at J.B. Kelly Elementary School earlier this month, most of their assertions are half-truths, and many of their claims about how they collaborate with the union are outrageously exaggerated.
Contrary to what was written in the School District's recent statement, its "continual collaboration" with the PFT is spotty, at best. Although we acknowledge that the Office of Environmental Management Services (OEMS) does a better job of collaborating and providing information to the union, the Maintenance office and Operations & Capital Program office typically offer very little cooperation or information.
For the last six months, the District’s Office of Specialized & Student Support Services has refused to provide critical, necessary asthma data and information despite requests from the Green Futures Asthma Prevention Committee established at a School Reform Commission meeting by the District, the PFT, and the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, which represents school principals.
One of the District’s most demonstrably misleading statements is its contention that its officials comprehensively notify and offer the PFT’s environmental director joint site assessments for both reactive and proactive Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) assessments. This does occur at times, but the District has not been willing to formally commit to this practice, so the PFT has no real way to know whether they notify us about everything.
For example, while the PFT was working with the District to address the dangerous environmental conditions found at Muñoz-Marín Elementary during the summer, we were neither notified about nor included in environmental assessments of more than a dozen schools. This is a perfect example of the District’s failure to provide the teachers' unions with promised notification, joint inspection, and data.
The District has made it clear that it has not provided and will not provide us some key information out of concern that we will make the information publicly available or that we will use the information to push for specific improvements that the District won’t commit to making.
Our environmental director has diligently worked with the District’s OEMS team to build as cooperative and collaborative a relationship as possible. Although we are pleased with the progress made, much greater transparency, participation, and input in getting dangerous conditions fixed are still critically needed.
Our conflicting viewpoints on the handling of school building conditions is no mere matter of semantics, nor a simple misunderstanding. The health of Philadelphia’s schoolchildren and educators is at stake.
Proper remediation of dangerous building conditions in our schools depends on three major elements: (1) effective communication, including providing all relevant data; (2) effective collaboration and coordination; and, most important, (3) fixing what needs to be fixed. The District has done a poor job with all of these elements, particularly #3.
This failure to properly share information and work with the union to address these issues has spiraled into $5 billion in needed repairs and the persistent presence of mold and other unacceptable conditions in schools like Muñoz, Kelly, Clemente and too many other schools. Still, the District has thus far refused to implement best and effective practices.
All of this not only leads to real health hazards for students and staff, but also to increased absenteeism, negative impacts on academic opportunity and achievement, excessive costs, and issues of social justice and equity. It is, after all, our poorest students, children of color, and those with asthma and other health problems who are at greatest risk and tend to attend school in the most poorly maintained buildings.
Unless the leadership of the District commits to a more comprehensive and cooperative approach, conditions will further deteriorate in our schools.
Jerry Jordan is president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, the union that represents teachers.