Citing ‘emergency’ repair needs, Democrats call for $125M for Pa. schools

A one-time cash subsidy would remediate the worst conditions in Pa. public schools — with most of the money going to Philadelphia.

State Sen. Vincent Hughes announces proposed legislation that would allocate surplus state funds to emergency school repairs, largely in Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

State Sen. Vincent Hughes announces proposed legislation that would allocate surplus state funds to emergency school repairs, largely in Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A handful of Democratic state lawmakers from Southeastern Pennsylvania are calling for a $125 million infusion to make “emergency” repairs in public schools, with more than half going to Philadelphia.

State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia), minority chair of the powerful appropriations committee, unveiled a pair of bills Wednesday, either of which, he says, could be used to fund the measure.

“I believe we have the political muscle to make something like this come to fruition,” Hughes said during a press event held at Richard Wright School in North Philadelphia.

Both bills would establish what Hughes dubbed the “School Emergency Repair Program,” a one-time cash subsidy intended to remediate the worst conditions in Pennsylvania’s public schools.

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Of the $125 million, $85 million would go to Philadelphia, where a recent investigation revealed environmental hazards such as lead and asbestos in city schools. The city and state recently set aside $15 million to remove lead and mold from Philly schools. A coalition of politicians and labor leaders say it would cost $170 million to fix all of the urgent facilities problems in Pennsylvania’s largest school district.

Another $30 million would be split among 134 school districts “with a significant number of students experiencing poverty.” The final $10 million would address urgent needs in the state’s other 365 school districts.

In a press release, Hughes said the money would be used “solely for emergency repairs,” including issues regarding asbestos, HVAC systems, electrical systems, plumbing systems, roofs, windows, or “other repairs or replacements that present a health or safety issue.”

Hughes said he’d be open to adding more money for other districts without reducing Philadelphia’s allocation.

Hughes has two plans to pay for the program.

One proposal, SB 555, would pool together unspent money from “several Commonwealth special funds.”

There are five special funds named in the legislation, with amounts Hughes wants to pull from each.

  • The Surface Mining Conservation and Reclamation Fund ($35 million)
  • The First Industries Program ($10 million)
  • The New Pennsylvania Venture Capital Investment Program ($20 million)
  • The Building Pennsylvania Program ($15 million)
  • The Underground Storage Tank Indemnification Fund ($45 million)

Hughes also plans to introduce SB 556, which would take $125 million from the state’s current budget surplus.

Pennsylvania has collected $890 million more in revenue than expected this year, according to the latest report from the Independent Fiscal Office.

The Republican leaders, though, have not been eager to spend surplus money, and instead want to stash it in Pennsylvania’s rainy-day fund.

“We don’t need to go on a spending spree just because we have some uncommitted funds,” said Jennifer Kocher, spokesperson for Senate Republicans, in response to Hughes’ idea. “It’s that philosophy that pushed back against spend plans in the past that have brought Pennsylvania to the prosperous economic position we are experiencing today.”

Hughes criticized that thinking.

“It’s already raining on people right here, and it’s especially raining on our school children,” Hughes said. “If we’re carrying that kind of surplus, these children and their schools need to be prioritized. They are going to school in toxic environments.”

Hughes shared a similar sentiment when asked why a disproportionate amount of the money should go to Philadelphia.

School district leaders in Philly catalogued their facilities needs in a comprehensive review released two years ago. The Philadelphia Inquirer followed that release with an investigative dive into toxic conditions in city schools, suggesting in some cases the situation was worse than district leaders revealed.

Those two developments give legislators a clear understanding of the needs in Philadelphia, Hughes said.

“We’ve done the very detailed, very painful work around the conditions,” he said. “It’s current information.”

“But I would also say we’re prepared to negotiate to bring more folks into the mix,” he added.

This type of one-shot, emergency funding for school districts is not new in Pennsylvania.

A fair funding formula passed in 2016 was supposed to make education funding more predictable and more equitable for high-poverty districts like Philadelphia. But the formula applies only to new money, and the state has continued to carve out money for distressed districts.

Hughes said Philadelphia can’t wait decades given its immediate needs.

“These are emergency conditions,” Hughes said.

Democratic lawmakers from both houses — including a handful from the Philadelphia suburbs — lined up behind the plan. State Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, D-Philadelphia, a former WHYY reporter, plans to introduce companion legislation in the House.

There were no Republican legislators at Wednesday’s announcement.

Hughes said he would soon reach out to State Sen. Pat Browne, (R-Lehigh), the majority chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“He’s a phone call that I have as soon as I get finished talking to you,” Hughes said.

Governor Tom Wolf, a Democrat, said through a spokesperson that he “commends these legislators for elevating this vital issue.”

Wolf’s $4.5 billion RebuildPA proposal calls for imposing a severance tax on natural gas extraction and using some funds for school infrastructure projects.

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