Lawmakers want Pennsylvania to restart its reimbursement program for school construction projects, with money set aside not just for new buildings, but also for repairs to the state’s aging schools.
A legislative committee’s report, released Wednesday, also calls for targeting money to projects to enhance school safety in the wake of shootings in Parkland, Fla., and elsewhere.
The reimbursement program, known as PlanCon, has stalled in recent years. Although the state has paid districts for building projects already approved, Gov. Wolf’s budget for the coming year does not include money for new efforts.
At a Harrisburg news conference, State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.) used the report’s release to call on Philadelphia and its school district to begin a citywide emergency cleaning and repair program for school buildings, citing “unsafe and unsanitary conditions” detailed in the Inquirer and Daily News series “Toxic City.”
Hughes on Wednesday sent Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. and Mayor Kenney a letter calling for immediate action.
“There’s been talk about activity, but quite frankly, it’s all been talk. Talk, while kids are breathing in asbestos, breathing in lead, suffering and watching rodents and roaches and mice and all kinds of other unhealthy conditions walk around and exist in their classrooms and in the buildings that they are supposed to be getting a 21st-century education,” Hughes said at the news conference.
The state senator said the district already has the money it needs for the kinds of emergency cleanup and repairs he calls for.
Hughes cited “a public health crisis from school building to school building, and we should not allow for this to continue any further.”
A schools spokeswoman said the district “has been doing as much work as possible with the resources we have, which includes a deep clean of our schools every summer and the establishment of new cleaning standards for our buildings,” said Megan Lello, the spokeswoman, emphasizing that the district’s planned $275 million capital budget for 2019 would bring major health and safety improvements.
But, Lello said, “let’s not lose sight that this is a problem created by years of inadequate funding and will only be addressed with more sustainable funding.”
The PlanCon report, which follows a series of public hearings and tours of schools by the committee, does not recommend a dollar amount for the state to appropriate.
A similar inventory of school building conditions statewide doesn’t exist. The report recommends that the state give districts incentives to assess their facility needs by offering additional reimbursement for projects.
Lello said that district officials “deeply appreciate” the intent to include repair projects in PlanCon work going forward.
“But to fully assist with the planning and investment needed to address our aging facilities will require consistent, defined, and significant funding,” Lello said in a statement. Without any funding attached to the state program, the district will not be able to identify new projects, she said.
Staff writers Kristen A. Graham and Liz Navratil contributed to this article.