02/07/2020

Philly’s infrastructure crisis comes to a head

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Our members’ push to heal sick schools in Philadelphia is being felt at the state level, with the health emergency reaching such a point that the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has sued its school district, persuaded the governor to budget more than $1 billion to fix schools statewide, and this week proposed a union-driven solution to triage an asbestos crisis, which so far has closed eight schools.

Randi speaks at PFT rally

The gradual decay of Philadelphia’s schools is immoral, AFT President Randi Weingarten charged on Feb. 5, when she joined PFT President Jerry Jordan, AFT Pennsylvania President Arthur Steinberg and allies at a press event in Philadelphia.

The union leaders proposed a rapid response team to be run by the Laborers District Council, which can provide up to 100 trained members to attack tough problems like asbestos, lead paint and mold. The rapid response team, together with the PFT’s phone app that allows school staff to report infrastructure problems at their schools, will help streamline repairs.

“I’m here to walk the walk with thousands of children, their parents and teachers who are fighting to make sure that Pennsylvania’s public schools are welcoming and safe environments,” Weingarten said. “As teachers and staff, every single day we are trying to make sure our kids thrive. That starts with making sure they can breathe.”

While asbestos and lead continue to poison students and staff alike, the drumbeat of protest is rising. Philly’s families have had enough, Jordan writes in an op-ed for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star: “The facilities emergency in Philadelphia’s public schools is nothing short of a humanitarian crisis.” You may remember two of the latest horrible stories in a litany of horrible stories:

  • In 2017, 6-year-old Dean Pagan tried to keep his desk clean, so when dust and lead paint chips coated his desk every day, he ate them, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. Now the boy suffers irreversible lead poisoning.
  • Last year, PFT member Lea DiRusso was diagnosed with an incurable lung disease, mesothelioma, after a career of teaching in schools with asbestos that was reported but left unabated.

a woman holds a sign at the pft rally demanding that their facilities be funded

Cases like these are why the PFT is one of only two teachers unions in America that hired an environmental scientist to track school conditions and tell decision-makers how to fix them. These cases, and earlier ones in which staff and students were sickened and even died, are why the PFT developed the phone app, which so far has gathered nearly 1,700 reports of unsafe conditions. It’s why our union in Philadelphia built a Fund Our Facilities coalition to solve these festering problems. And it’s why the PFT and all our affiliates nationwide are calling for investments in the public schools, colleges and services necessary to fund our future.

It’s not rocket science

Schools across Pennsylvania were mainly built in the 1950s, and over the years, the state has not replaced or properly maintained them. The solution is simple: enough public funding to repair and retrofit these facilities so that children can once again attend safe and welcoming schools.

Gov. Tom Wolf floated a $4.5 billion infrastructure plan last year that would have addressed the magnitude of the problem, at least in Philadelphia—but the Republican-controlled Legislature refused to take it up. The governor then produced about $12 million to help shore up Philly’s public schools, but he knows that’s not enough, and so do Philadelphia lawmakers who have introduced state legislation that would raise about 10 times that amount: $125 million.

“The scope of the crisis is massive,” Jordan writes, “but there are real solutions at hand. Our union has led the charge in fighting for the schools our children and educators deserve, and the urgency of this facilities crisis must remain at the forefront of our collective conscience.”

A two-year retrospective of activism on school infrastructure looks at where PFT members have been and where they’re going in the fight for healthy learning environments. Members are unrelenting in their fight for specific improvements at more than 200 buildings. Among their demands are more school cleaning and maintenance staff, rodent and pest control, accelerated lead paint stabilization, water leak repairs, electrical and lighting upgrades, bathroom upgrades and window replacement.

crowd at pft rally looks somber while holding signs

An interview with Jordan and Weingarten during their Feb. 5 visit is posted on Facebook. Weingarten noted that Trump administration officials, in town on the same day, should have been advocating for public schools instead of trying to siphon off money for private schools. Trump’s agenda of undercutting public services has been a nightmare for public schools, Jordan said at the rally, citing more than $4 billion in proposed cuts to federal education programs. Cuts of that magnitude would gut essential programs and ultimately drain money school districts could use to abate lead and asbestos.

“Many families in Philadelphia are hovering just at or below the poverty line,” he said. “These cuts are reprehensible and must be roundly rejected.”

[Annette Licitra]