Part Two: How to Fight the School District for Overdue Health Safeguards

Back in September, I published my blog post detailing my struggle to get answers from the School District of Philadelphia about my children’s school’s alarming facilities report. The post detailed more than two months of back and forth (mostly back) between myself, a group of allies, school district leadership, and city council. At the time of publication, we had pretty much gotten nowhere.

Fast forward to “Back to School Night” later that month where we notice that the old asbestos tiles in the auditorium appear to have been replaced and antiquated water fountains with high lead levels are finally being put out of service. Though, at the same time, we notice suspicious spots, stains, and shoddy looking repairs throughout the school.

I send yet another follow up email to school district officials, city council members, school reform commission (SRC) members, and the superintendent. There is absolutely no response.

So I decide to launch an online petition. If my hammering in their inboxes isn’t getting traction, maybe over a thousand signatures and comments flooding their inboxes will force a response. An article about the petition goes live in our local public school newspaper. I bring the petition in front of the superintendent at the SRC meeting later that month and he tells me he will “see me at the meeting at McCall next week.” I have no idea what he is talking about.

However, I do receive news that after months of non-response, both the environmental director and facilities maintenance director for the school district will attend the upcoming School Advisory Council (SAC) meeting November 1. And I’m shocked when they actually show up.

Below is a summary of what was discussed:

  • Regarding Transparency and Communication:
    1. Recent building assessment report will be kept in the main office with the principal and available to teachers and parents. I am also emailed a copy that I may share with other concerned parents.
    2. Home & School Association president receives new information on how raised funds may be used for school improvements through district work orders.
  • Regarding Specific Building Concerns:
    1. Interior water damage and paint damage: District has been to school 3 times in the past year and has found paint and plaster damage, primary in closets. The recent exterior restoration should stop chronic water intrusion. District intends to clean out those closets next summer to safely remove old paint and plaster (possible lead hazard). Water stained ceiling tiles are currently being replaced.
    2. Heating Units: The district acknowledges the heating units need to be replaced but it is not on the current budget priority list. Some progress has been made on adjusting the system with the building manager through the boiler heat control. The district will also perform a full building survey of heat conditions in all classrooms in the month of November. We will follow up to see if this actually happens.
    3. Roof: McCall has an old roof that should be replaced, however that is also not currently on the budget priority list. That said, there are currently no reports of leaking from the ceiling. The exterior restoration was a significant help in keeping the school watertight. Schools with current roof leaks must be given budget priority, however, there is an annual review and if there are work orders for roof leaks the priority is subject to change.
    4. Plumbing: District says a total of 12 work orders since the start of the school year have been closed. However, parents note that this does not address the systemic problem of a poor plumbing system. Coincidently, at the same time as the meeting, the district plumbers are on site doing repairs to the basement bathroom, which has been reported as most problematic. We will see if this helps fix the pervasive issues.
    5. Sprinkler System: District acknowledges that there is no plan to install a sprinkler system at McCall, but says annual fire code inspection and provisions currently in place should protect our children in case of an emergency.

Further discussion explains that replacement of the old asbestos tiles in the auditorium was performed per AHERA guidelines in September. I ask why this was not done immediately upon the 2015 inspection and I’m told it is because the tiles were not friable and therefore not an immediate hazard.

I was also pleased to learn that our building engineer and janitorial staff uses Greenseal products – which are actually mandated per the GreenFutures program implementation. 

Overall, McCall’s FCI score is likely quite a bit lower than first found in 2015 due to having a good “building envelope” (windows and walls), an electrical upgrade, and various other smaller repairs of issues found in the initial report. Rising real estate value also affects the FCI.

In reality, an FCI score is hard to read in terms of numbers and a higher score is not always equivalent to a higher hazard. It is unanimously agreed that school buildings need significantly more funding from a variety of sources and that repairs must be based on the level of safety issues.

District reps agree to offer better methods of communication to all stakeholders. Now that we have some of the answers we were seeking, we can better access our concerns and keep a careful eye on anything that needs to be addressed.

That said, this is NOT the end of the story.

While this is a bit of a “win” in terms of transparency and communication, it does not alleviate the problem.

It took four months of pressure to get this meeting to happen – and certainly, there were some officials at the district who did not want this meeting to happen at all. Would we have had any shot at a meeting if we weren’t one of the most well-resourced schools in the district and a “Blue Ribbon School?” Why can’t parents and teachers get honest answers to questions in a reasonable amount of time rather than resorting to petitions? Is this information going to be made accessible to all public school parents, or just the ones who make it their jobs to fight for it? Where is the transparent information for how building repairs are prioritized and why aren’t we implementing more fiscally sound solutions so we don’t need to reach the point of multi-million dollar repairs and school closures?

We still need fair funding for all of our schools so that facilities get repairs when they are needed and do not reach a point where they are hazardous or worse. Recent mold-related closures at John B. Kelly Elementary and Muñoz Marin Elementary underscore the district’s negligence. Currently, the school system reports more than $5 billion in outstanding repairs at schools citywide.

But before you run for the hills, note that you don’t have to look too far outside the city to see how pervasive school building malfeasance is even at suburban schools.

So where do we go from here?

Coincidentally this post coincides with the announcement that after 16 years of state control, Philadelphia is officially planning to dissolve the School Reform Commission in favor of a mayor-appointed school board. This is something advocates have been fighting for since the ill-fated decision to allow Harrisburg to control our schools back in 2001.

While this is unlikely to change the district administration, it does create a new system of accountability for which the mayor of Philadelphia takes proud ownership. It does not create an immediate solution for insufficient funding, but it does make an assurance that we will not again face a budget deficit.

“With a return to local control, the people of Philadelphia will finally be able to hold one person accountable for their school system, the mayor,” Kenney wrote.

The petitioning for environmental and health transparency for our public schools is also the mission of the growing Philadelphia Healthy Schools Initiative. The coalition is a 17-member collective of organizations, including Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, PennEnvironment, Parents United for Public Education, Public Interest Law Center, and Youth United for Change. I encourage you to follow and support their work as they advocate for a specific series of policies to be implemented by City Council and the School District of Philadelphia.

Finally, please do not be afraid to speak up. I know that teachers often worry that if they speak up about these concerns they will somehow be “punished” by the district. Parents are afraid to speak up because they don’t want to be “that parent” or make their school “look bad.” But if we don’t speak up and advocate for safe and healthy school conditions, we are risking something far worse than looking like “that crazy lady.”

This is a continuing battle and it goes far beyond the Philadelphia School District. Speak up, ask questions, and demand answers. Remember, these are constitutional rights!

“The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.”

“The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.”

The story continues…


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