An Update from the Superintendent Regarding the State of District Facilities
Dear School District of Philadelphia Community:
The news of recent inspections that revealed damaged asbestos material in two District-owned and managed buildings, and the need to swiftly shift those schools to virtual instruction during repairs, have understandably raised questions about health and safety as well as the District’s management of environmental hazards in our facilities.
Today, I’m writing to speak directly to you, our school District community, about facts regarding our buildings, what we are doing to improve environmental conditions, and the District’s commitment to transparency and accountability.
Nearly 200,000 students and staff consider our buildings a home away from home during the day, and their wellbeing is my top priority. The age and deterioration of our buildings pose a significant challenge. A comprehensive assessment of our facilities found it would cost nearly $5 billion to fully repair and bring our buildings up to code. With decades of underfunding, the District has had to balance insufficient resources to work on our facilities and the need to deliver pressing educational services.
However, since the 2019-2020 school year, the District has brought more intention and resources to assessing and improving its environmental compliance program, with a particular focus on asbestos and lead.
A District Snapshot.
Across the District, there are nearly 300 buildings that were constructed or repaired when asbestos was commonly used in floor tiles, pipe insulation, and some paint and cement products because of its insulation and fire-retardant qualities. There is no simple fix to get rid of all asbestos. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says it’s often better to manage it in place and maintain it in good condition instead of removing it.
There are 295 buildings in the District’s asbestos management program that require three-year inspections and six-month surveillance under the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA), the federal law that governs all U.S. schools and how they manage asbestos. Last year, the District brought on Tetra Tech, as consultants, to manage our AHERA inspections, related recordkeeping, and data. Inspections take, at a minimum, several days at each building: one large school can have more than 3,000 materials that require assessment, often in difficult to reach areas.
During these three-year inspections that remain ongoing, damaged asbestos was observed and determined to require immediate attention at Building 21 and Simon Gratz Mastery Charter. Work in Building 21 is ongoing. It is important to keep in mind that not all asbestos damage requires such immediate action; some can be repaired over time depending on location and condition. The existence of asbestos itself is not a hazard; it becomes a health concern when fibers are released and can be inhaled.
As part of the inspection process with Tetra Tech, the District is conducting a data review in preparation for inspections, with focused attention to detail and documentation, including review of prior records. This review has confirmed gaps in the District’s historic recordkeeping. I met with Inspector General Naberezny, who will investigate the Building 21 situation. I and my staff will comply with any information requests. And we will hold ourselves accountable for lapses in timely responses.
Progress Has Been Made.
To date, we have completed 229 three-year inspections, with seven in progress and 59 remaining at some of our oldest and largest facilities. Once completed in the coming months, we will have a more comprehensive record of each building’s asbestos conditions from which to be able to monitor changes over time. And the cycle of three-year inspections will begin anew.
This improved inspection process – while revealing environmental hazards – is working as it should throughout the District. Since building conditions change over time from age, weather, construction and other factors, monitoring the condition of asbestos is central to identifying new damage to be repaired.
During this round of three-year inspections, areas of asbestos damage regularly have been identified for repair in buildings. These repairs often can be contained, and done outside of school hours to minimize disruption.
And, to put it plainly: in the coming weeks and months, we anticipate more damaged asbestos will be identified. This is not an indication of a program failure, but the contrary – a program that is working to protect health and safety through the identification and management of environmental concerns.
We also are making progress in addressing lead in our buildings. Lead exposure can come through paint or water, and we are addressing both. We have completed lead paint assessments in 194 facilities, and certified 169 lead-safe schools, with a particular focus on the facilities that serve our youngest students who are at the greatest risk of lead poisoning caused by ingesting paint chips or breathing lead dust. We have also installed more than 1,700 hydration stations in schools across the city to provide chilled, filtered drinking water. Each installation is itself a significant project, as the stations require electric, plumbing and sometimes environmental work as the units are attached to the walls and floors. The District recently was awarded a $5 million grant from the EPA to bring more hydration stations to our school buildings toward our goal of having one per 100 students, and one on every student-occupied floor in our buildings.
We are making strides, even as we acknowledge there is a great deal more to do. As the Board of Education emphasized in their recent open letter announcing their education platform, our District continues to operate under well-documented and long-standing financial and staffing resource constraints. Unlike other school districts, the School District of Philadelphia is legally not permitted to raise its own taxes. Our funding stream is almost entirely dependent on the State and City. For years, that funding has failed to meet the needs of our young people, a fact underscored by the recent finding of the Commonwealth Court, that low-wealth districts such as ours have been significantly shortchanged.
The District Can’t Do This Work Alone.
We are grateful for meaningful partnerships that are making a true difference, including the $100 million committed over 10 years by the University of Pennsylvania to address environmental concerns. We are also using $325 million of federal stimulus funding over four years for major facilities projects and renovations.
The needs are vast. Our children are facing crippling poverty, housing and food insecurity, and an epidemic of gun violence which has taken the lives of 17 of our school children this year already. Our schools are safe havens, providing not just classroom instruction, but support to meet nutritional, physical and mental health needs.
This is a moment that demands sustained investment in our schools and collaboration among District, civic, political and business leaders. It requires all of us to work toward our shared goal of creating and maintaining healthy, safe educational environments for all our students and staff.
I will continue to stay in conversation with you, the School District community, as we work through these challenges together.
Tony B. Watlington Sr., Ed.D.
The School District of Philadelphia
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Asbestos Frequently Asked Questions (epa.gov)
National Cancer Institute
Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risk Fact Sheet – NCI
Environmental Advisory Council:
City of Philadelphia asbestos resources:
Asbestos documents and forms | Department of Public Health | City of Philadelphia