As the Philadelphia school district struggles with asbestos in its aging buildings, governors are using the University of Pennsylvania’s $100 million pledge to help tackle toxic materials.
A tiny fraction helped pay for an inspection at Building 21, West Oak Lane High School, which closed last week when returning inspectors discovered exposed asbestos in the auditorium.
Penn’s grant is paid in ten annual installments. The first, arriving towards the end of the 2020-21 academic year, was primarily spent on “staff and programs” to drive the process forward — including $3.7 million for testing and $2.6 million for staff, as evidenced by Billy Penn documents – as opposed to actually eliminating hazards.
“This is not the case for [the fiscal year 2021-22] Contribution and Subsequent Contributions,” district officials wrote in their second annual report to Penn. Last year, “the entire $10 million [was used] for activities directly attributed to combat and stabilization.”
The district has not previously disclosed how it allocated the Penn money, which has frustrated some parents, teachers and union members. (You can browse the dates below.)
Mary Gray is the grandmother of a seventh grader at William Dick Elementary, where $298,000 of 2021-22 funding was spent. Gray regularly attends meetings between community members and the North Philly school, she said, but was unaware that asbestos cleanup had recently been carried out. Dick has been the site of a “major moving project” twice in 2021, per city, with another completed last month.
Gray wishes such issues were better communicated.
“It’s misleading because they know about it and they want the parents involved, they’re not 100 percent honest with us,” Gray told Billy Penn. “And I don’t think that’s right, because if you want us to be a part of it, just be 100 percent honest.”
Jerry Roseman said he was grateful for Penn’s gift – which others have criticized as a drop in the ocean compared to what the university would contribute if it had to pay property taxes – but he’s upset at the lack of transparency, how it is issued.
“I don’t really know how they spend it, where they spend it, or what exactly they spend it on,” said Roseman, director of environmental sciences at the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which represents 13,000 district staff.
The union has no way of tracking how much asbestos remains in buildings and what still needs to be done, Roseman said.
An interactive map from the City Controller’s Office shows asbestos abatement projects in county schools from 2016 through the end of that calendar year, but does not include funding details.
Nearly $300,000 of the Penn Grant was spent last fiscal year redeveloping the William Dick School in North Philly. (Elizabeth DeOrnellas for Billy Penn) Make data public
Annual reports on Penn Grant spending are not online but are available upon request, said school district spokeswoman Christina Clarke. The documents were made available to Billy Penn after several communications and a reporter’s indication that they were filing a request for access to open records.
Sharing financial information with district employees is important, said Bruce Harris, the building representative for the PFT union at Paul Dunbar School. “It helps build morale, it helps foster better top-down working relationships.”
Harris is responsible for reporting problems at the North Philly school to the union. However, he has no idea, he said, that Dunbar spent nearly $715,000 fighting environmental hazards in the 2021-22 academic year, according to the Penn Grant Report.
Other schools that received major Penn-funded pollution control work last year include Furness High School ($1.1 million), Fox Chase School ($416,000) and John Bartram High School ($309,000). Dollar).
William Dick’s facility was built in 1953. The Dunbar Building is over 90 years old. And that’s not the worst.
Like the Limekiln Pike home in Building 21, which closed last week, nearly four dozen county schools are in facilities built more than 100 years ago.
The older the building, the more worrisome the asbestos problem. Most US schools built before 1980 contain the mineral, which was widely used as insulation in ceilings, pipes, floor tiles and other areas – until it was found to be a major carcinogen and banned.
Asbestos isn’t necessarily a problem when it’s hidden behind walls, but when things decay, as they do in old buildings that aren’t properly maintained, it can become airborne and sucked into the lungs. From there, asbestos fibers can lead to cancer and other massive health problems, sometimes decades later.
Over the past decade, and particularly after The Philadelphia Inquirer’s “Toxic City” series in 2017 and 2018, the Philly School District has closed dozens of schools to clean up asbestos damage, sometimes more than once.
School officials have been criticized for not being proactive or thorough enough; In 2020, a teacher suffering from mesothelioma linked to asbestos exposure settled a lawsuit with the district for $850,000.
How many is too many checks?
Under the state’s Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act, known as AHERA, Philadelphia school buildings are required to be inspected at least every three years.
A city ordinance passed last year mandates additional inspections at a third of schools each year. It is also setting up an oversight board, chaired by the Office of the Chief Executive, to determine if schools are following best practices for remediation. In January, the school district sued the city over the law, saying it could “unnecessarily threaten” the opening of school buildings and disrupt student learning. This case is pending.
Before he resigned to run for mayor, former councilor Derek Green was the sponsor of the inspection ordinance. When asked about Penn’s $100 million mitigation pledge, he said he was grateful for it.
“Penn as a university is an important player in our city, and for our community to thrive, we need resources to help our schools become better,” Green said of Billy Penn.
Overall, the district used the 2021-22 Penn rate for projects at 209 schools, according to its report, including:
Asbestos abatement in eight schools to bring ventilation systems into operation Lead paint stabilization in two schools Lead and asbestos paint stabilization in five schools Floor tile removal and replacement projects in seven schools. Reduction and encapsulation of materials at the remaining 187 schools
The money was allocated based on a variety of factors, including the location of the hazardous material; whether the material could become airborne, ingested or end up in a classroom; and whether or not the material can be repaired and managed on site, according to the report.
District Superintendent Tony Watlington, as part of his three-phase plan to improve schools in Philadelphia, has committed to improving district communication and accountability to families and the community.
Roseman, the scientific director of the environmental science union, remains skeptical. “They all commit to it,” he said, “but that’s not happening, at least on the asset and environmental side.”
School District Report for Fiscal Year 2020-21 on Penn Scholarship School District Report for Fiscal Year 2021-22 on Penn Scholarship
This story was published as part of a year-long reporting project with Temple University’s Logan Center for Urban Investigative Reporting on educational disparities in the Philadelphia School District.