Children deserve to learn with dignity in safe, healthy buildings
Our children, teachers and school staff have been suffering in broken and toxic schools for far too long.
A number of incidents, including school closures, heating and air quality, asthma-inducing conditions, and more, occurred before the Inquirer‘s reporting on toxic schools last year. Most notably, Christopher Trakimas, a facilities mechanic at Edmonds Elementary School in East Mount Airy, died of injuries he suffered in a boiler explosion in 2016. In 2017, 4th grader Chelsea Mungo wrote a heartbreaking letter to State Sen. Hughes saying she felt like she was in prison – or a junkyard – when she was in school at Lewis Cassidy Academics Plus School in West Philadelphia. “Why does the color of the students’ skin matter how much money we get for our school?” she asked.
Both stories are tragedies in their own right.
Even with the spotlight from that award-winning news coverage, we still had the Ben Franklin High School and Science Leadership Academy debacle and reports of exposed asbestos at T.M. Peirce School this fall. On Good Morning America, Lea DiRusso, a teacher with 30 years of experience in Philadelphia schools, went public with her diagnosis of mesothelioma, an asbestos-related cancer.
None of this should happen, and if we continue to let incidents like these occur, they will become normalized. This is wrong. We should not be sending our children into such dangerous conditions – they deserve to learn with dignity in modern buildings.
To address critical school infrastructure concerns, we stood alongside Superintendent William Hite as he announced financing for $500 million for school infrastructure improvements, including $12 million for asbestos remediation. During that event, and at a separate call to action at Drexel University on Nov. 22, we have called on the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to step up and do its part. We need support from Harrisburg, including more state funding for schools and a more equitable distribution of the revenue. Philadelphia and other districts, large and small, urban and rural, are still feeling the effects of drastic funding cuts in 2014 under the administration of Gov. Tom Corbett.
A number of existing proposals would help solve the short-, medium-, and long-term issues we’re experiencing in Philadelphia as school buildings age and funding levels, especially from the state, lag behind.
The legislature could elect to provide funding for PlanCON, a state program it approved that is designed to help address school maintenance and infrastructure needs across the Commonwealth. As of now, the program has no appropriation attached to it. This has consequences for students like Chelsea Mungo: The District has earmarked the aging Cassidy building for replacement, but the construction has been delayed several times due in part to a lack of capacity and funding.
The legislature could pass the Public School Building Emergency Repair and Renovation Program. Proposed by Sen. Hughes, it would establish a $125 million grant program within the state Department of Education. The grants would be distributed with $85 million to Philadelphia, $30 million to districts with high rates of poverty, and the remaining $10 million to any other district. The grants could only be used for emergency repairs for health and safety issues.
Another bill, the Public School Renovation and Rehabilitation Act, would establish a $6 billion fund, providing $600 million a year for 10 years to help financially struggling school districts make timely repairs. This act would give low-wealth school districts 75 percent of the available funding and establish a statewide health and safety rating system for public school buildings.
It is also worth considering a model that has been tried with some success in places like Chicago, New York City, and Washington, D.C. – separating school infrastructure management from school district operations.
In addition, funds should be made available that would allow for lead testing all children, and we suggest taking the step of ensuring that all students and staff are able to access regular medical monitoring.
We are at a critical junction when piecemeal solutions will not suffice. Our people are experiencing long-term problems from the condition of their schools. That cannot continue. We recognize this in Philadelphia, but we need Harrisburg to join in the fight, for our students, teachers, and staff in our city and across Pennsylvania. We cannot mandate by state law that people learn and work in schools without providing healthy and safe conditions in those facilities. Asking them to work in broken and toxic schools is unfair and immoral.
We cannot stop our fight to end this public health crisis. Improving our school infrastructure is expensive, but it is nowhere near as costly as allowing these issues to continue.
Vincent Hughes is a state senator in the Seventh District, which comprises parts of Montgomery and Philadelphia Counties. He is the Democratic chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Helen Gym is a Philadelphia councilmember at-large.