‘Best Practices’ Ordinance Would Put City in Conflict with Federal Environmental Law

Posted on May 18, 2022
Categories: Blog, Insights with the Board

An updated ordinance being proposed in the City Council would require every school in the School District of Philadelphia to ensure compliance with “best practices” for asbestos testing, remediation, abatement, cleaning and management before a school is allowed to open. We know this proposal comes from a sincere place of concern for our school children and staff, and understandable frustration that progress is not being made faster in resolving all environmental concerns in our buildings.

But let me be very clear: Such an ordinance, relying upon undefined “best practices” and supervised by an advisory board of non-experts, would be in direct conflict with the federal asbestos law that governs health and safety for school buildings. The ordinance could also require the District perform “best practices” which contradict Philadelphia’s own asbestos regulations, which already are among the strictest in the nation.

This proposed ordinance, which would go into effect in August 2023, also would delay the repair and removal of asbestos in schools, as each building would be considered on a case-by-case basis against unspecified standards, making it impossible to appropriately plan and prioritize according to need. In addition to these delays, having undefined “best practices” standards would lead to unpredictable, unknowable metrics that change from school to school. The ordinance creates constantly moving targets, exacerbates inequities, and disadvantages the District as it works to meet the clear directives already laid out by the federal and city governments.

The federal law, known as the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA), already requires 3-year inspections and 6-month surveillance, designed to monitor the conditions of asbestos containing material and identify changes in the condition of the material. The federal law has hundreds of complex, technical, scientifically-based specific guidelines and mandates – all with an eye toward the health and safety of public schools across the United States.

The District’s position should not be misunderstood. We do not disagree with this “best practices” ordinance because we fear increased scrutiny or accountability. On the contrary, we see many opportunities for city leaders to work together with the District to help us reach and maintain compliance. For example, the Comptroller’s interactive dashboard of our asbestos work is a great idea for  how city departments can help educate the public and help us continue to improve.

Nearly 200,000 children and 18,000 staff members make their daytime home in our 300 district buildings – dozens of those buildings constructed over a century ago before potential environmental hazards were widely recognized.  We encourage elected officials, parents and the public to continue to shine a light on the resource challenges that we face as one of the oldest, largest and historically underfunded school districts in the United States.

We are making progress toward our goal of creating a more equitable and safe learning environment for all our students and staff. Since last May, more than 5,000 asbestos-related abatement actions have been completed in 236 District buildings. One hundred fifty schools now have “lead safe” or “lead-free” certifications. We have installed 1,432 hydration stations with more ready to be installed.

We are using our existing resources deliberately to ensure they are used equitably and with increased transparency.

A new ordinance of “best practices” would create obstacles to helping us reach our safety goals, will create confusion, and will put us at odds with the federal law that governs every school district in the country. This ordinance provides that schools that don’t meet “best practices” standards cannot open. This will truly cause chaos when some schools are unable to reopen on time, further jeopardizing student safety.

We know this ordinance on its face might seem a wise additional layer of accountability, especially where public trust in the District has been challenged. However, the reliance on non-experts and ad-hoc standards will make compliance impossible and will subvert the safety goals this ordinance is intended to address.

Instead, we urge city officials to work with us – within the existing, comprehensive and detailed framework of city and federal regulations – to achieve the overall goal we all share: to ensure every building in the District is safe and welcoming for all our school children and staff.

Joyce S. Wilkerson, President, School District of Philadelphia Board of Education