With $7.6 million in new state funds, the School District of Philadelphia this week picked four contractors to jump-start an ambitious plan to clean up toxic lead paint in 40 schools.
It's the first time that state money has been specifically earmarked to reduce lead paint hazards in Philadelphia schools, according to J.J. Abbott, spokesperson for Gov. Wolf.
And the state plans to keep a close eye on how the money is spent.
"The state will work collaboratively with the School District and the city to ensure that every dollar spent will improve the conditions of these schools," Abbott said in an email Wednesday. "The contract will ensure the work is done to high standards and in keeping with best practices. The state will actively monitor progress and correct any deficiencies immediately."
Both the money and the state's pledge of oversight come in response to an Inquirer and Daily News investigation, "Toxic City: Sick Schools," which exposed how the district had botched repair jobs, wasted money, and put thousands of the city's youngest, most vulnerable students at risk for lead exposure and other environmental hazards.
Some school advocates and parents say transparency and accountability on the district's part are key to gain back trust.
"When you have lost trust, you have to work hard every single day to rebuild that trust," said Robin Roberts, a mother of three and head of Parents United for Public Education. "I really want the people who make policy to understand that we cannot just write a check and have a problem go away. There needs to be oversight. There needs to be input. There needs to be follow up."
Just last December, School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. announced a plan to repair damaged lead paint and plaster in at least 30 schools. He said the work would be completed in just one month's time.
At the time, there was a sense of urgency. A month earlier, a 6-year-old student suffered from severe lead poisoning and landed in the hospital after he ate paint chips that fell from the ceiling of his first-grade classroom and onto his desk at Watson Comly Elementary School in Northeast Philadelphia.
In addition, the newspapers had begun their own independent testing inside more than a dozen rundown elementary schools, assisted by staffers who asked not to be identified.
As part of Hite's plan, the district engaged Pepper Environmental Services to patch toxic paint and crumbling plaster at 18 schools for $350,000, according to minutes of a December 2017 meeting of the School Reform Commission. In addition, 25 of the district's in-house painters went to work at several other schools.
But just a few weeks into the work, district officials were forced to halt that plan, pull Pepper Environmental off the job and apologize to parents and teachers who complained that the district didn't tell them that lead paint was being removed and that painters for both the district and Pepper left behind toxic dust and debris in classrooms. The district paid Pepper $288,182 for work started at eight schools. Seven of those schools have to be redone, either because of poor work or because the district, before launching Hite's plan, failed to fully identify all areas with deteriorating lead paint.
"We could have been more clear on what needed to be done," district spokesperson Lee Whack said Wednesday. "At the same time, there were some issues with their work." Pepper did not return numerous phone calls and emails seeking comment.
Now, seven months after Hite unveiled the remediation plan, only two of the 30 schools have been finished: George W. Nebinger and Andrew Jackson Elementary, both in South Philadelphia. To the district's credit, after problems surfaced, school officials met with parents, school staffers and members of the Philly Healthy Schools Initiative to craft better procedures moving forward. With the district using its own painters, Nebinger and Jackson served as pilot schools.
"So we took a pause on the contractors, revised our process and restarted at Nebinger and Jackson," said Danielle Floyd, the district's chief operating officer.
The new requirements call for better communication with parents and tighter guidelines to safely remove flaking and peeling paint. They also require an outside environmental technician to oversee the jobs from start to finish and write an "oversight report" at the end of each shift. Stepped-up scientific testing of surfaces will help make sure that rooms are free of lead dust before students can return.
The district said the work at the 40 schools will begin within two weeks and hopes to complete most of them before classes resume.
The district selected four firms: Arena Maintenance Solutions in Fort Washington, Delta/BJDS in Southampton, Hispanic Ventures, with offices in Center City and New Jersey; and Peter Bradley Construction in Bensalem. Representatives from the four companies did not return phone calls for comment.
Of the $7.6 million, nearly $5 million will come from the state Department of Human Services and $2.5 million from the state Department of Education.
State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.) helped secure the state funding.
"We're working together to get the best job done. We cannot tolerate anything less than that," Hughes said Wednesday. "That would be a bad mistake because the people who suffer are the kids and the teachers and everyone else who goes in and out of those schools."
Gretchen Dahlkemper, a parent who will have three children at Nebinger this coming school year, said she is cautiously optimistic.
"We worked out what I think is going to be a really good plan if implemented correctly across the district," she said.
"The district can say there is going to be this oversight, and it's going to be the same at every school," she added.
"Time will tell."