As Philadelphia City Council heard testimony from concerned citizens at a public hearing about the city’s public schools, a powerful coalition of unusual suspects announced the kick-off of the “Philly Health Schools Initiative” to address significant building condition deficiencies and related environmental health threats found in public school buildings, including lead paint, asbestos, mold and other risks.
The coalition has many of the city’s largest labor unions including the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT), AFL-CIO, AFSCME districts 33 and 47, and Teamsters Local 502, representing the city’s public school principals, as well as parent organizations such as the Friends of Neighborhood Education (FONE) and Parents United, and environmental health groups like Penn Environment and Physicians for Social Responsibility (a full list of coalition partners is listed below), as its members.
“Schools are places where our kids go to learn, achieve, build lifelong friendships and grow up to be productive citizens in society,” noted PennEnvironment Director David Masur. “We must ensure that they are places that are safe and healthy for our children, teachers, schools workers and community members.”
Adding further heft to this new effort was the fact that the Philly Healthy Schools Initiative was joined by several members of Philadelphia City Council who are actively involved in policy issues around schools, children’s health and the environment, including Councilman Derek Green.
“Students, teachers and other school workers have a right to feel confident in the knowledge that the school spaces that they occupy aren’t threatening their health,” stated Philadelphia City Councilman Derek Green. “Hazards like lead paint and asbestos are not conducive to life, let alone learning, and this initiative will help to provide much-needed protection.”
Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds added, “While the School District is taking important steps to create healthy and sustainable schools, much more can be done. I thank the District for its willingness to engage parents, teachers, students and community members of all stripes to build a comprehensive plan that promotes a safe, healthy learning environment for each student in our city.”
The coalition was created when several environmental and healthy food groups joined together with parent organizations, student advocacy groups, labor unions, and Philadelphia city council members in the aftermath of the drinking water disaster in Flint, Michigan in order to address the threat of lead in drinking water in the city’s public schools, and to improve access to clean water. After City Council passed new tougher regulations in December 2016, the coalition saw their combined political strength and policy accomplishment as a critical recipe for local success when legislative victories are few and far between in Harrisburg and Washington DC. After holding regular meetings and reaching out to other likely allies, the groups decided to press forward for other much-needed policy recommendations.
“I’m thrilled to have a chance to collaborate with the organizations gathered here today,” said Jerry Jordan, President of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT). “I look forward to working together on how we can advance solutions to the hazards that have plagued our school buildings and jeopardized our children’s health for too long.”
Specifically, the Philly Healthy Schools Coalition called on the School District and Philadelphia City Council to immediately implement the following policies:
- Improve the Public’s Right to Know by requiring greater information and data transparency about environmental health threats from the School District of Philadelphia to parents, teachers, and community members. District officials have thousands of Indoor Environmental Quality reports, site inspections and other environmental health-related data that is not easily available, or even known, to the public.
- Establish “Adequate Building Conditions” that will set minimally acceptable environmental health standards that should be met by every school building in Philadelphia and Best Practices Standards to significantly improve school conditions.
- Identify and address the most critical environmental health threats in our schools—and develop an action plan to remediate them in the fastest ways possible.
- Develop a districtwide “Comprehensive Educational Facilities Master Plan” (CEFMP). While most large school districts across the country have a Facilities Master Plan to prioritize and ensure schools are healthy and safe, no such plan exists for the School District of Philadelphia.
- Create an official Educational Facilities Environmental Health Task Force comprised of parents, teachers, unions, public and private advocates and other community stakeholders that can provide input and recommendations to the School District and help develop the CEFMP.
- Advocate for Increased funding to finance these and other critical initiatives to address environmental health risks in our school buildings.
“From long-term first-hand experience in conducting school condition and environmental health assessments I know quite well the magnitude of what staff and students are facing every day and I know that we must do better,” stated Jerry Roseman Director of Environmental Science and Occupational Safety & Health, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers Union and Health & Welfare Fund. “My work with the District’s Environmental Office has demonstrated that when we collaborate, are able to openly share information, and roll up our sleeves to jointly develop and implement solutions that focus on occupant protection, real success can occur – it is this effort that needs to be built upon and expanded.”
Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, Staff Attorney at the Public Interest Law Center, also attended the press conference to show his support and was quoted as saying, “All Philadelphia children deserve schools with resources ready to educate them, to keep them healthy, and to help them lead productive lives. Just as schools must have enough teachers, counselors and books, it means they must have fresh water, clear air, and safe physical conditions that befit the endless potential of our children.”
Members of the Philly Healthy Schools Initiative include:
32BJ SEIU Local 1201
American Federation of State County & Municipal Employees [AFSCME] DC 33
American Federation of State County & Municipal Employees [AFSCME] DC 47
American Postal Workers Union [APWU]
Friends of Neighborhood Education [FONE]
Media Mobilizing Project
Parents United for Public Education
Philly Schools Uniting Neighborhoods [PhillySun]
Physicians for Social Responsibility
Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia
Teamster Local 502, CASA (Philadelphia School Administrators)
The Food Trust
The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers
Youth United for Change (YUC)
Technical Advisory Committee Members to the PHSI-Coalition
1) 21st Century School Fund, Wash., DC
2) Center for Cities + Schools, University of California, Berkeley
3) Center for Environmental Excellence in Toxicology [CEET] Perelman Medical School University of Pennsylvania
4) Fred Farlino, SDP’s Executive Director for School Support Services, General Manager for Facilities, Maintenance & School Operations [FM&O], & Chief Operating Officer [retired]