How to Fight the School District for Overdue Health Safeguards – Part One

Excerpt from my 2016 book. Sadly my fears were confirmed.

In 2015 I saw a national news report called “Philadelphia’s Dirty School Program” that shattered me.

I immediately sent out a letter to the Office of Capital Programs at the Philadelphia School District to share my dismay not only to the story, but to the district representative’s dismissive response in the TV appearance. Her response: “Thank you for your feedback.”

Now it is two years later. That district rep is the school district’s Chief Operations Officer. We still don’t have a school board, and my son is in second grade at a school which I recently learned was given an FCI rating of 57%, with 60% being the benchmark for shutting the building down. 

This past May, a group of concerned advocates, elected officials, and Philadelphia Federation of Teachers reps raised concerns through a press conference. These Facility Assessment results were technically publicly available, but not something that many parents, if any, were aware of. Seeing the results in terms of the hard numbers, I was shocked to see that my children’s school was one of the worst rated in terms of structural and environmental hazards. We were rated miles worse than our neighboring public schools and among the worst in the entire district. I was alarmed to see flaking asbestos tiles in the auditorium, potential black mold in the basement, a severely deteriorated roof, the lack of a sprinkler system, no bathroom exhaust fans, and a wide variety of other concerns.

Stage 1: Panic

Am I letting my children be canaries in a coalmine? If one of my children develops mesothelioma at age 35, will I always question my choices? Am I complicit?

This is the question I pose to myself, to friends, and to Google, where I quickly learn there is no assurance of a “safe space.” Parents have been fighting these battles everywhere from wealthy suburban districts to private schools.

Children Exposed to Asbestos at Washington Elementary School

Students displaced from mold-ravaged Willowridge High School

Portland schools struggle with more potent toxic scare: lead paint

But during a time when public education funding is stagnant, our public school students are the ones who are most at risk for environmental health hazards.

We love our school. We love our neighborhood, the parents, the teachers, the children, and the education. We have no desire to try our luck anywhere else. This is our home. This is our community. We have chosen to stay and fight.

Stage 2: Power in Numbers

I brought together a group of other concerned parents and teachers in hopes of sparking the action needed to address the most critical issues for our children’s and staff’s health and safety at our school. We had the backing of the Philadelphia Healthy Schools Coalition, which includes support from several city council members. We also brought in representatives from other local schools, hoping that if we can make this change at our school, they may be able to use our protocol to make the needed changes at other schools throughout the district.

We brought in an expert in building hazards and reached out to the principal for support. We built a coalition, put our questions in order, and sent out a query to the school district, copying the superintendent and city council for good measure. We did not come here to play.

Moms Clean Air Force flyer empowers parents by arming them with facts.

Stage 3: Hurry Up and Wait

I spent exactly one month following up via email with the district COO, the superintendent, and city council seeking a response to any of our inquiries. Finally, on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend just before the start of the school year, I sent a final notice to the district: If we don’t get some answers before our children walk into that building Tuesday, I am going to the national press. I received a response three hours later.

Stage 4: What Do These Answers Tell Us?

As one might expect, the answers we received were periphery at best, dismissive and partly false at worse. Some questions apparently did not necessitate answers such as:

  1. The school building is not covered by an automatic sprinkler system. Installing a sprinkler system with quick response type heads should reduce insurance costs by providing protection for the property investment.

SDP Answer: The school building is NOT covered by an automatic sprinkler system. 

Other answers simply doubled down on the chronic “band-aid” scenario plaguing the district both physically and financially:

  1. We have seen firsthand the need for plumbing renovations, with children complaining of constantly overflowed toilets, toilets covered with garbage bags, and poorly working exhaust fans (listed in 2015 report). What is the status of plumbing repairs to keep bathrooms from being in a constant state of maintenance and poor use?

SDP Answer: There are 16 plumbing work orders tagged for completion this summer pertaining to leaks and non-flushable toilets. They have all been closed.

This does not answer our question – it repeats it. What about the broken exhaust fans? And, again, what is the status of plumbing repairs to keep bathrooms from being in a constant state of maintenance and poor use?

There is more. The answer about the roof having a response time of 4-5 years directly conflicts with the public capital budget for the next five years, which earmarks no additional money for this school.

The answer to a question about antiquated heating units notes a priority for buildings with central HVAC systems. But wildly uncontrolled heating, beyond creating discomfort and poor learning conditions, can affect the structural safety of the building. High humidity from a heat system like ours can impact the deterioration of lead paint and asbestos.

The district COO closes with the following:

“The purpose behind completing the condition assessment was to have updated information on the condition of the 300+ educational facilities we manage.   We have been clear in stating that the value of our deferred maintenance and future capital renewal needs far exceed our annual capital funding allotment.   Moreover, the FCA is being used to inform our overall investments priorities and to ensure the buildings with the greatest needs are getting addressed.   Given your school’s FCI score, we recognize a need for additional investments.   There are 84 buildings that also fall within that range.   I welcome your feedback on how we prioritize spending to ensure equity and parity within our system.  Recognizing the need to invest in preventative maintenance, this year’s capital budget did allocate a small portion of funds to address those deficiencies in the Priority 4 response time.”

Regarding the welcoming of feedback on prioritizing spending to ensure equity and parity within the system, here is how our growing coalition responded on September 6. We await a response and I will certainly let my readers know if we receive one.

The FCI assessments were a great first step. Unfortunately, it does not allow the stakeholders to see if there has been any prioritizing made for repairing these conditions. What would be helpful is a transparent and publicly available breakdown of what the most critical repairs are across the district and a timeline for each of these repairs. Parents and teachers have no way of knowing the actual hazard from each of these issues.

Because Philadelphia remains possibly the only district in America without a publicly elected school board, there is no process for input on budget priorities. We believe there is nothing more important than our children’s health and we should not have to fear sending our children into buildings that could actually make them sick.

We understand from recent media reports that significant money has been put into surface repairs and appearance upgrades for many schools. While we understand that a fresh coat of paint and a new rug can be a morale boost, if we are concerned about appearances, let’s take a look at 30 students sweating in their classroom in the dead of winter because the radiator cannot be controlled. Let’s take a look at the line for the nurses’ office to retrieve inhalers. We believe that with public input, you would find that these are the appearances that matter most.

We simply MUST find a way to make these repairs a financial priority and earmark more money towards these repairs. We need a clear way to view the most critical issues in order. For instance, if we could see that A, B, and C will be fully funded within 5 years, perhaps that offers the opportunity for the community to come together to find a way to fund projects D and E through fundraising or grants. Right now, we are all in the dark.

We want to work with the district but we need faster responses, transparent information for parents and teachers, and accountability from our school district. That is the only way we can repair public education. As parents, we have chosen to stay and fight for the schools we love and believe in. AND WE WILL.

Note: Since the original July 2015 assessment, there have been repairs to the electrical system as well as work done on the exterior of the school that may have taken the percentage down several points. I call this post “part one” because there is surely more to come. If the School District has funding for new paint and cubbies for some schools, there must surely be flexibility in the budget to receive our input on crucial repairs, many of which would be fiscally prudent in the long term. As we grow our coalition and public awareness, the School District must find a way to fund the most critical repairs across the district and be more transparent and responsive with all stakeholders.

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