Asbestos in Schools: Parents, lawmakers rally for Philly students' safety

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Elected officials, educators, and parents called on Governor Tom Wolf Wednesday to prioritize facilities funding in this year's budget to address health and safety concerns in Philadelphia schools.

"The money is there. We know where it is. It is now about an issue of political priorities," Pennsylvania State Senator Vincent Hughes said.

They are asking for $170 million. This wasn't the first plea to the state and it likely won't be the last.

"There is a rainy day fund that exists in Harrisburg. Well, we're saying it's raining in Philadelphia right now," Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said.

The group congregated outside Carnell Elementary School in Oxford Circle, which has been closed since before winter break.

Six schools this school year alone have been temporarily shuttered for asbestos concerns.

Parents are worried about their children's studies and their health.

Rishawn Reynolds says her daughter Tiffany is asthmatic.

"And I don't really know how this affects her," Reynolds said.

Parent Stephanie Marrero said it's not only the students', but the teachers' health that is a worry.

"What about our teachers' health? They're in these schools for decades. They don't know if they're going to be sick in ten years. We're not worried about today, we're worried about what's going to happen in ten years to our children," Marrero said.

Elected officials from different areas of the city are uniting for this cause.

"We have to figure out how we're going to pay for this because this is not going to go away," State Senator Tina Tartaglione said.

"It is unacceptable that our young people go to school and do not have fresh air to breathe," State Senator Sharif Street said.

"Philadelphia is the largest single contributor to the Pennsylvania budget several times over, and while $170 million might sound like a lot of money to most of us here, it is a drop in the bucket compared to our state budget," State Representative Brian Sims said.

As for Carnell Elementary, officials hope to reopen the school next week.

In a statement, the school district said:

"The School District of Philadelphia appreciates the support of state and local legislators in advocating for additional funding to improve environmental conditions in Philadelphia public schools. Every student and staff member in our schools deserves a safe and healthy learning environment. The District's Environmental Safety Improvement Plan, which was unveiled in November, reflects a comprehensive effort to accelerate our ability to identify and address environmental safety concerns in our schools. We will continue to fully leverage the resources we have to advance this Plan, and identify and resolve environmental issues in partnership with the PFT with safety always at the forefront of our decision making. There is much work to do. Our schools are on average 70 years old and many are in need of significant repair. We will continue to work collaboratively with the PFT, the City, elected officials and other organizations to confront our facilities challenges and provide the schools our students and staff deserve."

Governor Wolf's office said in a statement:

Governor Wolf believes that no parent should have to worry about the health risk of sending their child to school. The safety of our children should always be a priority and our schools must be healthy environments where students and teachers can focus on learning and building bright futures.

Over the past two years the governor has visited Philadelphia schools to see the environmental issues firsthand and provided nearly $12 million to address lead paint and fund repairs. That investment in state funding has resulted in improvements at dozens of schools that serve thousands of students.

The governor agrees that more funding is needed to protect the health of students and teachers. He continues to urge the legislature to pass his Restore Pennsylvania proposal to generate $4.5 billion in infrastructure funding over four years. With that funding, Pennsylvania could spend tens of millions more to remediate lead and other contaminants in schools.
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