Gov. Tom Wolf visited John H. Taggart School in Whitman this week to discuss how funds from his Restore Pennsylvania initiative could help to remediate contaminants in decaying schools throughout the state.
Over the next four years, the massive proposal, which the governor announced in late January, would generate $4.5 billion through the monetization of a “commonsense severance tax” with funds designated for various infrastructure projects, including storm preparedness, disaster recovery, downstream manufacturing, business development, energy infrastructure and high speed internet access.
The potential tax would generate roughly $300 million a year in taxes, which will pay off the more than $4 billion in bonds over the next 20 years.
Although up to 40 schools, including Taggart, will continue to receive last year’s more than $15 million in combined state grants and district funding to address toxic issues, Wolf estimates that an additional $100 million would be needed to remove lead and other contaminants in 200 of Philadelphia’s public schools.
“What goes on in this building is really important to the future of our commonwealth,” Wolf said. “I don’t care where you live, who you are, what party you’re in. What goes on here is absolutely central to what we need to have happen for a prosperous, great Pennsylvania.”
Pennsylvania is currently the only oil-producing state in the nation without a severance tax, which is a state-imposed fee on the extraction of non-renewable natural resources.
Wolf says Pennsylvania, which is the second-leading producer of natural gas in the country, continues to lose out on necessary funds without a severance tax.
According to the Restore Pennsylvania outline, the tax will not make any changes to the natural gas impact fee, which has “assisted local communities where natural gas is extracted to invest in infrastructure, their economies, and the health and safety of residents.”
“Every other business, every other person has contributed their fair share,” said state Sen. Vincent J. Hughes. “These companies, some of the wealthiest in the world, have not contributed their fair share.”
State Sen. Larry Farnese noted that Pennsylvania is located on one of the largest natural gas reserves in the world – the Marcellus Shale.
“Now it is time, well past time, for all stakeholders to come together for a program that’s going to not only make Pennsylvania better, but most importantly, it’s going to make the success, possibilities and the opportunities that we’re going to be giving our kids throughout Pennsylvania,” Farnese said.
Superintendent Dr. William Hite says half of the School District of Philadelphia’s buildings are more than 70 years old – many of which were discovered to contain hazardous levels of contaminants, leading to illnesses in students and teachers, according to the 2018 Philadelphia Inquirer investigation “Toxic City: Sick Schools.”
“What we’re basically saying is – we’re OK with creating the conditions that allow schools to deteriorate,” Wolf said. “They’re at the heart of neighborhoods. We’re also letting those neighborhoods deteriorate. What are we going to do about that?”
Hite, who explained the difficulties of renovating aging schools, says according to a facility analysis from a few years ago, just to restore all of the district’s buildings to code would cost $4.5 billion.
With 46 schools identified as “high-need” for lead-remediation, 30 of which should be completed by the end of the summer through last year’s $15.6 million funding, Hite stresses this step is not nearly enough.
“Even after we use all of the grant money and the funds that the district operations budget has provided, there’s still significant amounts of work to be done,” Hite said. “That’s why we’re all advocating for a reliable source of funding. We’re not going to address $4.5 billion in deferred maintenance needs with a collection of one-time funds. We actually need a recurring source, so that we can actually have a long-term plan to address these things and to ensure that buildings that we address don’t fall back into disrepair”
The 103-year-old building of Taggart, which has undergone renovations throughout the past year, is one of dozens of schools that has been funded through the $15 million boost.
Improvements included lead paint remediation and modernization of classrooms, including fifth-grade teacher Meredith Avicolli’s room.
“We were a fantastic place to start with and just to brighten it up and show kids how important that their second home is,” she said. “I think the color and the cleanliness and patching here and there, and the lights are brighter. It just shows them that everything is brighter for them. I really think it shows them how much they’re cared for.”
Wolf notes that Restore Pennsylvania is separate from the state budget. After introducing the plan in February, Wolf says it’s now a matter of the state legislature voting on the proposal in the upcoming weeks.
Seeking a bipartisan and bilateral process, Wolf says he’s looking to the state legislature to assist in designing the details of this process.
“There’s a lot to do in every community all across the commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” Wolf said. “That $4.5 billion could actually give Pennsylvania communities, Pennsylvania schools and families a chance to actually get back on their feet.”