City Council advances bill to toughen asbestos and mold standards in Philly schools

The city health commissioner says third-party inspections are necessary because public trust has eroded with the district’s handling of school building problems.

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)

The Philadelphia City Council Licenses and Inspections committee advanced a bill today that would hold school buildings to new standards regarding asbestos and mold.

With unanimous support from committee members, it next moves before the full chamber.

The proposed bill would add asbestos and mold to the list of physical conditions that inspectors would have to look for to determine if a school building can continue to operate.

Councilmember Derek Green, who proposed the bill, said the city needs to take a more “proactive approach” to ensure safe education facilities.

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The committee heard from education advocates, parents, and health experts who all spoke in favor of the change.

Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Cheryl Bettigole suggested that the city hire an independent contractor to conduct the inspections. She said the city would not have the capacity to do the work with current staffing. She also cited dwindling public trust in School District of Philadelphia leadership to address infrastructure problems transparently and effectively.

“We believe that hiring an outside vendor that possesses this expertise to conduct independent inspections and to make their reports publicly available would be a better option,” said Bettigole, “Since it is more likely to build public trust and would relieve some of the operational burden the legislation would cause.”

The committee did not put a price tag on how much third-party inspections could cost or who would pay.

Jerry Roseman, director of environmental science for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, praised Bettigole’s suggestion. Roseman, who has sparred with district leadership for years on building concerns,  said the district should also hold frequent public meetings on the issue.

Bettigole said the key to mold prevention is “moisture control,” and that inspections for moisture intrusion, water damage, and mold need to be incorporated into regular day-to-day building maintenance and that officials need to respond promptly when relevant issues are found.

She noted the long term health impacts that young children can suffer due to mold, which can trigger asthma symptoms and exacerbate respiratory diseases.

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Asbestos and mold have been issues in some Philadelphia schools for decades. Transparency around asbestos has been an issue since at least 1984, when the Environmental Protection Agency fined the School District of Philadelphia for failing to properly post warnings about asbestos in both J.R. Masterman and nearby Franklin Learning Center.

“There has been no real change,” said Shakeda Gaines, president of the Philadelphia Home and School Council. “We have teachers and staff who are scared to go inside of their buildings because they’re scared of dying. We have children who are scared of dying.”

Gaines took her son out of public school and she says fears about building safety keep her from re-enrolling him.

Saterria Kersey, president of Masterman Home and School Association, has been in the middle of a years-long battle with the district over asbestos concerns. District officials say the school is safe. Some parents remain skeptical and want more detailed information.

“Trying to get information from the district is like trying to get information from a rock,” said Kersey.

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, gave a brief history of the district’s lack of transparency and effectiveness around asbestos issues in school buildings across the city.

“Their responses, or lack thereof, have perpetuated problems that could and should have been fixed years ago,” said Jordan, “And community trust has been shattered.”

In addition to Green’s bill, the union is pushing for the district to take other action to improve school safety, including giving Roseman regular inspection access and taking seriously the problems educators have been submitting via the PFT’s Healthy Schools Tracker app.

The district has balked at the idea that its own inspectors are insufficient, and has said it has responded swiftly to concerns that have arisen. Leaders have also noted the average age of school buildings in the city is 75 years — a system that needs billions of dollars in new support to live up to 21st century standards.

Roseman contends that, even in emergency situations, the district regularly fails to meet industry best practices and too often acts like a lock box for information.

“It’s very hard to tell the full scale and scope because there’s no information,” said Roseman. “Right now elected officials have to demand and require the district to comply.”

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