Pa. Dems push for school infrastructure to be priority in next federal stimulus

Benjamin Franklin High School located on North Broad Street. The school was forced to close in 2019 due to exposed asbestos. (Nathaniel Hamilton for WHYY)

Benjamin Franklin High School located on North Broad Street. The school was forced to close in 2019 due to exposed asbestos. (Nathaniel Hamilton for WHYY)

A coalition of Democratic legislators in Harrisburg are calling on the commonwealth to prioritize fixing crumbling school infrastructure with a substantial portion of the federal funds in the latest proposed COVID-19 stimulus package.

President Joe Biden’s planned $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package is still taking shape, but the most recent figures suggest the package will contain about $350 billion earmarked for state and local governments.

On Friday, state Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Phila.), state Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler (D-Phila.), and several other Democratic lawmakers held a virtual press conference to demand Pennsylvania route some of that money into an emergency grant program that would pay for schools to remediate asbestos and lead, make electric and plumbing repairs, and do other needed maintenance work.

“We know that our schools were dangerous even before this pandemic,” Fiedler said. “For generations, our teachers, guidance counselors, nurses, students, and school staff have been sent into buildings where they can get brain damage because of chipped paint, or cancer because of asbestos.”

Teachers in Philadelphia have pointed to the school district’s history of infrastructure woes as a major reason for distrusting its plan to resume in-person learning for some students. Many city teachers have refused the district’s demand to return to school buildings. Both sides are now awaiting the ruling of a city-appointed mediator.

Legislators said Friday that crumbling infrastructure is far from just a Philadelphia problem. State Sen. Jim Brewster (D-Allegheny) held up a picture of a V-8 Chrysler car motor during the press conference — the backup generator for one of the school districts in his region.

“I want to give that school district a lot of credit for being creative,” Brewster said. “[But] it is sad to think, in a major power shortage, we would be relying on old technology like that.”

Statewide data on school conditions is limited, but a 2014 study on school buildings in the commonwealth found that two-thirds of those included in the study were constructed before 1970, making it likely that they contain asbestos. And during the 2018-2019 school year, more than 100 schools in 32 districts across the state were found to have unsafe levels of lead in their drinking water.

The coalition does not yet have a specific amount of federal funds it wants to see sent to schools, or a plan for distribution. Lawmakers are waiting for the federal stimulus package to solidify before addressing those details.

The lawmakers are also backing Gov. Tom Wolf’s push to add $1 billion to a state grant program that pays for infrastructure upgrades, as well as making that program available to schools seeking to do lead and asbestos remediation.

Both the proposed changes to that program — known as the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RCAP) — and the routing of federal stimulus funds to school infrastructure would require buy-in from Republicans, who command a majority in Pennsylvania’s House and Senate.

House GOP spokesman Jason Gottesman was skeptical of the Democrats’ proposals, writing Friday that reopening schools should be legislators “only priority at this time.”

“Right now, thousands of Pennsylvania public school children are falling behind because they refuse to follow the science and the recommendations of health officials that indicate schools should be open for in-person education,” he said in an email.

Wolf is also calling on the legislature to add another $1.3 billion to the state’s main pot of education cash. He wants to pay for it through an income tax increase on the state’s wealthiest residents — a move Republicans have already flatly rejected.

Even if Pennsylvania legislators ultimately don’t earmark any of the state’s discretionary federal funding for school improvements, the state’s schools do stand to benefit from the forthcoming stimulus package.

According to the latest figures, about $130 billion of the total stimulus package is expected to be set aside for K-12 schools.

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