A day before Philly schools reopen, facilities woes take center stage

Masterman teachers protest outside school.

In this August 2021 photo, Masterman teachers (from left) David Shapiro, Donna Amit-Cubbage, and Elizabeth Diffenderfer join other teachers, parents and students at a protest outside the school, which they say has an asbestos problem. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

As Philadelphia prepares to fully reopen its public schools for the first time in 18 months, the spotlight is again on facilities woes.

At the center of the storm is one of the district’s most selective magnet schools — Julia R. Masterman — where a group of parents and teachers claim the School District of Philadelphia is stonewalling their efforts to double-check asbestos remediation projects inside the 88-year-old building.

Across town, meanwhile, the district agreed to start the year virtually at Science Leadership Academy Beeber in West Philadelphia after parents raised alarms about an ongoing construction project. Officials may find a new temporary home for some students at the school, according to Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

At Masterman, there remains no resolution.

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Some staff worked outside the building Thursday and Friday, for which the district issued discipline and docked pay. Educators returned to their building Monday, one day before schools are slated to open.

About 50 parents and students gathered on the school’s steps Monday morning to pick up the baton. They were joined by four City Council members — Helen Gym, Derek Green, Jamie Gauthier, and Mark Squilla — highlighting the attention this case has drawn.

“If this is happening at Masterman, it is horrifying to think what is happening, probably mostly under the radar, in some of the poorest schools in the district — who need our support, who need our voice,” said Barbara Dallao, former president of the Masterman Home and School Association (HSA) and member of the environmental committee.

In a letter sent last night to the Masterman community, district Chief Operating Officer Reggie McNeil said workers had addressed 60 areas of concerns during three separate asbestos remediation efforts, with the most recent happening earlier this month.

McNeil said the abatement work had been supervised by a “third-party” inspector. Last Thursday, McNeil added, a safety inspector made sure ongoing construction projects aren’t causing imminent hazards. A representative from the city’s Department of Public Health also walked the building Thursday, according to McNeil and “did not notify the [district] of any violations.”

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Those reassurances have been met with skepticism by some parents and staff, many of whom have been pressing district officials for more information about abatement efforts since the 2019 discovery of asbestos in a school closet.

The parents have not yet claimed there are hazards in the building or that the district has failed to meet its legal and regulatory obligations. But they say they have reason to believe the district — which has long faced criticism for its handling of asbestos — has misled them.

For instance, the parents say a November report by a third-party inspector indicated the district should have done more abatement work than it ended up doing. Instead of removing some asbestos, the parents say, workers ended up sealing trouble spots.

“There were significant discrepancies,” said Dallao. “They did a fraction of the work.”

The HSA’s chief demand is that the district conduct a joint inspection alongside one particular expert: Jerry Roseman. Roseman is an environmental consultant who has worked for decades alongside the city’s teachers union.

But there’s been furious back and forth over the state of that proposed inspection.

Roseman told WHYY News there was an attempted inspection on Friday, but he was not informed of it until less than an hour before it was set to begin.

“They treat me in a way that’s unprofessional and disrespectful,” said Roseman of the district.

Roseman says his key demand has been to be able to perform a thorough visual inspection, but there’s also been general disagreement over how to perform more precise analysis.

Roseman says he prefers a type of asbestos air testing called Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM), a more expensive, more accurate method which is considered the gold standard in the industry. The district uses a faster, more common method backed by the EPA called Phase Contrast Microscopy (PCM) testing.

The Masterman HSA’s environmental committee wants the inspection to include areas above certain ceiling tiles where images show debris. The district has denied that request on grounds that such an inspection must be done by “licensed professionals who the District has retained for that purpose,” according to McNeil’s letter.

Roseman does not have an active asbestos inspection license, although he says that’s merely a formality and notes that he helped author city asbestos standards and has done thousands of inspections over many decades, with special experience in schools.

“There’s only one issue about my background: I don’t work for the district,” Roseman said. “I’m an independent inspector. That’s really the only real issue.”

Roseman pointed out that workers have made three separate trips to Masterman during 2021 to do asbestos abatement. He believes those continued trips suggest the district’s third-party inspectors may not be doing an adequate job.

“They continue to miss damaged asbestos,” Roseman claimed.

A school district spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

But in a letter sent Monday — and obtained by WHYY — the district’s head of the Office of Environmental Management offered Roseman the opportunity to “walk and visually observe conditions at Masterman” on Tuesday afternoon.

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