There’s a new development in the asbestos crisis in Philadelphia – the school district is challenging a new school inspection law by suing the city. The school board says the new law could prevent some schools from reopening in the fall.
The law requires all School District of Philadelphia schools to be inspected for safety issues, including asbestos, water quality and lead paint in order to determine if they meet the new criteria.
Philadelphia City Council’s new law is titled “Special Certificate for Inspection” and was created to improve building safety requirements for buildings used for educational purposes. In order to receive a special certificate for inspection, the building must be “in substantial compliance with the best practices for testing, remediation, abatement, cleaning and management of asbestos, and other property-related hazards.”
The bill later states, “The Managing Director shall identify any additional property-related hazards as well as best practices…after considering the recommendations of the Facility Safety and Improvement Advisory Group, which shall consist of…appointments by the Mayor.”
The new inspection law sets a timeline for the school inspections, requiring one-third of city schools to be inspected by August 1, 2023. The second-third must be inspected by 2024, and the last by 2025. The specific schools that fall within each deadline have not yet been announced.
Details of the School District’s Lawsuit
The School District of Philadelphia has filed a lawsuit against the city in response to the new inspection law. The basis of the lawsuit notes many flaws in the “Special Certificate of Inspection” amendment.
Starting off the complaint, the district acknowledges the lack of specifications throughout the city’s inspection law. The first issue noted the undefined “best practices” and “property-related hazards” the school must identify in order to pass inspection. Also discussed in the complaint is the fault in the Mayor-appointed advisory board, noting the appointees are not required to have any scientific, technical or environmental knowledge or relevant licensing.
Another point called out the city for signing the new inspection law despite the fact that the school district is already required to follow state and federal guidelines associated with the management of lead, asbestos and other environmental hazards.
One of the fundamental arguments in the lawsuit is that the bill insinuates that without city approval and issuance of “Special Certificates for Inspection,” School District of Philadelphia buildings cannot open for the coming school year, which would affect teachers, students, faculty and parents.
The complaint further disputes the bill’s threat to in-person learning and support for the 130,000+ students attending district schools “based on vague, undeveloped and unidentified practices adopted under the ambiguous authority and unspecified expertise of the City’s Managing Director.”
It is also mentioned in the complaint filed by the district that the city enacted the new inspection bill, and cut funding to the district’s annual operating budget, limiting the funds the district can utilize to meet new standards.
Philadelphia’s Clashing School District and City Council
The school district’s decision to sue the city is unprecedented. However, the district strongly believes the city is adding unnecessary steps and requirements to the school inspection process. The district fears these new requirements will interfere with over 100,000 students and their education by forcing schools to close if they do not meet the city’s unspecified criteria.
Many students and parents rely on schools for countless reasons. Most parents or guardians work during the week and cannot afford childcare. Some students look forward to safety at school as their home life may not be the best. Nearly all students count on school for a warm lunch. If schools were to close for noncompliance with inspection requirements, many students’ well-being could be in jeopardy.
Now, the city knows its history with asbestos. The city council is attempting to closely monitor the state of district schools to prevent an asbestos scandal from reoccurring. The city’s guidelines for its new law may need some clarification, but overall, the city needs stricter policies regarding asbestos in schools to protect the health and well-being of students and teachers.
Philadelphia’s History with Asbestos in Schools
The city of Philadelphia, as well as the school district, is no stranger to asbestos and its presence. Less than a few years ago, the city received national attention for the asbestos crisis in its public school buildings. Throughout the 2019-2020 school year, almost 10 city schools were shut down due to the overwhelming level of asbestos within the buildings.
Some schools were shut down for minor repairs, while others were shut down indefinitely. Teachers, students and parents protested publicly, demanding safer schools. They consistently went to school board meetings fighting for improvements.
One long-time Philadelphia teacher was even diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma, an extremely rare cancer caused only by asbestos exposure. The teacher sued the School District
The school district defended itself, saying it simply could not keep up. With nearly 200,000 students, over 300 schools and a limited budget, there were too many issues and not enough time or money. School officials stated the district had an estimated $4.5 billion in unmet capital needs.
Reports revealed Philadelphia schools were deteriorating due to exposed asbestos, unacceptable water quality and dangerous levels of lead paint. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers even went as far to sue the district, alleging it failed to protect 125,000 students and 13,000 employees from asbestos in old buildings.
Following the lawsuit, the district pledged $14 million to address environmental projects over the next few years, enlisting the help of environmental and asbestos professionals.
Now, the district and the city are clashing again, but this time in an unexpected way. At the end of the day, the goal for both entities is to ensure the safety and well-being of students and educators.
- School District of Philadelphia sues city over new inspection law which could close some schools. WHYY. Retrieved from: https://whyy.org/articles/school-district-of-philadelphia-sues-city-new-inspection-law-school-closures/. Accessed: 01/24/2023.
- BILL NO. 210685-AA (As Amended on Floor 5/12/2022). City of Philadelphia. Retrieved from: https://phila.legistar.com/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=5143675&GUID=33FCC061-09C9-4919-ADF3-903E125B15E3&Options=ID%7CText%7C&Search=210685. Accessed: 01/24/2023.
- The School District of Philadelphia, Plaintiff, The City of Philadelphia, The City of Philadelphia Department of Public Health, Managing Director Tumar Alexander, Defendants. COMPLAINT. Retrieved from: https://www.philasd.org/schoolboard/wp-content/uploads/sites/892/2023/01/Complaint.pdf. Accessed: 01/24/2023.
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