Philly congressmen seek federal help to fix 'unconscionable' condition of city schools

Cristine Gonzalez, back, holds her six-year-old son Dean Pagan, front, Wednesday, May 2, 2018, at a playground in Philadelphia. Dean was severely lead poisoned at Comly Elementary School.

WASHINGTON — Philadelphia’s three congressmen on Friday urged House leaders to devote federal money to repairing the city’s schools, which are suffering from mold, deteriorated asbestos, and peeling lead paint.

The letter from Democrats Bob Brady, Brendan Boyle and Dwight Evans came in response to the Inquirer and Daily News series “Toxic City: Sick Schools,” which detailed the conditions and the sometimes devastating health consequences for school children.

“The conditions detailed in the Philadelphia Inquirer are nothing short of unconscionable and unacceptable in the United States of America,” Boyle said in a joint statement.

Evans said, “It is entirely unacceptable for our students to be expected to succeed in classrooms that are crumbling right before their very eyes,” while Brady said “Philadelphia needs aggressive federal support. In spite of best efforts, local and state tax revenues are not adequate.”

The three urged House Speaker Paul Ryan and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to include money for school buildings in any infrastructure program considered in Congress.

“It is clear that public schools play an important role in the physical and cognitive development of our nation’s children; however, despite their importance, inadequate funding has led to outdated and unsafe school buildings,” the three wrote. “While the responsibility for school buildings has historically fallen on local school boards and their taxpayers, the problems have risen to a level that we cannot ignore or brush off as merely a local problem.”

An infrastructure bill, however, does not seem likely in the near future. While President Trump and Democrats have argued for a major infusion of spending — perhaps more than $1 trillion — they have differed over how to pay for it, and many Republicans have objected to such a large spending initiative.

“It will take an all-hands-on-deck effort to ensure that every child in the School District of Philadelphia has the school building they deserve,” a spokesman for the district said Friday. “At the federal level, the law could be amended to allow renovations to existing school buildings to qualify for federal tax credits. We agree with Congressmen Bob Brady, Brendan Boyle, and Dwight Evans that our schools have ‘inadequate funding’ and we are very grateful that they are advocating on our behalf in Washington, D.C.”

>READ MORE: Danger: Learn at Your Own Risk

The Inquirer and Daily News investigation revealed environmental hazards in district buildings all across Philadelphia that put children at risk and deprive them of healthy spaces to learn and thrive: peeling lead paint, deteriorating asbestos, mold, rodent infestations, leaking roofs and pipes.

Reporters enlisted staffers at 19 elementary schools to collect materials for scientific testing. The results revealed high amounts of lead dust and asbestos fibers on floors in gyms, cafeterias, hallways, classrooms, and auditoriums. In some cases, damaged asbestos has gone unrepaired in schools for up to two years.

When the district did make repairs, its workers and hired contractors sometimes performed shoddy work that had to be redone and left behind lead dust, asbestos fibers, and other toxic materials, according to the newspapers’ own independent testing and analysis of district records.

As part of their investigation, reporters analyzed more than 250,000 environmental reports, both public records and internal district maintenance logs, and created a School Checkup web tool. The tool, for the first time, enables parents, teachers and students to check on building conditions at more than 200 district-run schools, down to a specific classroom, gymnasium or building area.

The tool details four building conditions known to impact a child’s health: rampant mold, deteriorated asbestos, flaking and peeling lead paint, and drinking water containing high levels of lead.

Staff writer Kristen A. Graham contributed to this article.