District Outlines New Environmental Safety Improvement Plan
At the School District of Philadelphia’s Education Center today, Dr. William R. Hite, superintendent, was joined by Board of Education President Joyce Wilkerson, Councilwoman Helen Gym, Councilwoman Cindy Bass and Senator Vincent Hughes to unveil the District’s new environmental safety improvement plan.
“Nothing is more important than the health and safety of our students and staff,” said Hite. “We are here to educate, but students cannot learn at their highest levels and educators cannot do their best work if they are concerned about the environmental safety of their schools. And while we acknowledge the significant investments we have made to improve our facilities, we know there is much more work to be done. That is why, standing side by side with our Board of Education and elected officials, I am introducing our comprehensive Environmental Safety Improvement Plan.”
The Improvement Plan will accelerate the improvement of environmental conditions in District schools by focusing on three critical areas:
- Better identifying concerns, increasing responsiveness and addressing known asbestos conditions in schools;
- More proactively and effectively managing environmental safety and capital projects; and
- Better communicating with, educating and empowering our staff and community members about environmental safety in schools.
The District has already begun to take action in several key areas.
“We have increased executive management of our Operations Division by dividing it into two functional areas so each can get more focused attention,” said Hite. “An environmental consultant has been hired to review our existing construction projects to determine if additional environmental work should be included. And every Facility Area Coordinator (FAC) is undergoing refresher training on asbestos risk identification and reporting processes, and will be partnering with principals to conduct a visual inspection of every school to identify any potential environmental safety concerns.
Other actions that will be taken as part of the plan include:
- Significantly expanding resources to manage asbestos-related issues in schools, with the goal of eliminating the current backlog of asbestos-related work orders by the start of the 2020-2021 school year;
- Launching a “see something, say something” effort to encourage reporting of environmental concerns to a new telephone hotline or dedicated email with a commitment to respond within 24 hours;
- Strengthening bi-annual Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) inspections of each school, with inspectors immediately reporting any findings of possible imminent hazards to the District’s Office of Environmental Management Services for follow-up within 24 hours;
- Forming an Environmental Advisory Board composed of parents, teachers, students, union representatives, medical professionals, City Health Department officials, and university and health system professionals to review the District’s efforts and identify areas for improvement; and
- Developing and following a disciplined process to more proactively communicate with any school where design, construction and/or any environmental initiatives are planned.
“The District’s environmental safety plan is a critical step in moving us forward,” said President Wilkerson. “The Board is ready to hold the District accountable for achieving the aggressive goals it has set.”
The District will also be working more directly with the City, elected officials and other organizations to confront and address the challenges it has faced, such as significant deferred maintenance costs associated with its aging infrastructure, a tight labor and contractor market, and understaffing.
“The average age of our school buildings is 70 years old, with some more than 120 years old,” said Hite. “As a result, we face significant structural and environmental challenges in our buildings, which are costly. Also, construction is booming in Philadelphia, which has limited our ability to recruit skilled painters, electricians, plumbers, steamfitters and environmental managers and to access the expert contractors we need to manage our more than 220 school buildings.”
The plan is supported by the District’s existing operating funds and $12 million of the $500 million in capital funding the District recently borrowed.
More information about the plan and the work the District is doing to improve environmental safety in schools can be found online at philasd.org/healthyschools.