Unions offer ‘rapid response’ fix for lead, asbestos in Philly schools

Jerry Jordan speaks about new plan to fix schools (Tom MacDonald/WHYY)

Jerry Jordan speaks about new plan to fix schools (Tom MacDonald/WHYY)

Philadelphia’s teachers union has joined together with the Laborers District Council to offer a quick fix to asbestos contamination that has shut down many city schools.

Officials from the school district say they are willing to listen.

Ryan Boyer of the Laborers’ union said they have more than 100 trained members ready to attack environmental issues — from lead paint, to mold to asbestos — in city schools.

“This problem needs to be eradicated. It’s too important to allow our children to suffer because of inaction,” Boyer said.

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So far this year, seven Philadelphia schools have been shut down temporarily for asbestos removal. Others have had problems with lead or mold, but those have often stayed open during repairs.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which is suing over the issue, is urging the school district to take the laborers up on its offer. Randi Weingarten, president of its parent union American Federation of Teachers, came to Philadelphia to say that funding should be made available to fix the issues and no longer put students and teachers at risk.

“We cannot wait until the summer when you see tiles, when you see lead in water,” she said. “You cannot wait until the summer to solve this now because it hasn’t been solved up until now. It has to be done more quickly.”

Superintendent William Hite said he’s ready to hear out the unions’ offer.

“I’m in complete support of a rapid response team with one caveat,” Hite said. “That caveat is that we have to prioritize what individuals are responding to.”

He said a meeting with all involved parties could come as soon as Thursday. Hite said this is part of a bigger issue — that Philadelphia’s schools are old and crumbling and more capital dollars are needed to get up to good educational standards.

He said in the meantime, the district will work to repair the buildings they have in order to keep school in session.

Union officials hope that a rapid response team, coupled with an app that allows teachers and other union members to take pictures of issues in their schools will make the process go more smoothly.

In his budget this week, Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed spending more than $1 billion to fix so-called “sick” schools statewide. If approved, Philadelphia is expected to receive millions to assist in repairs.

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