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New coalition of government representatives and union leaders announces call for $170 million in school-repair funding

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, the American Federation of Teachers and several government officials gathered outside Key on Friday demanding actions to remediate local public schools.

Elected officials and union leaders convened outside Francis Scott Key School on Friday to propose the new Fund Our Facilities coalition, which plans to cultivate an immediate $170 million investment toward the repairs of Philadelphia public schools. State representative Elizabeth Fiedler addresses the crowd. (GRACE MAIORANO/SPR)

Elected officials and union leaders convened outside Francis Scott Key School on Friday to propose the new Fund Our Facilities coalition, which plans to cultivate an immediate $170 million investment toward the repairs of Philadelphia public schools.

In light of more than 200 aging schools afflicted with a scope of health hazards, the team of more than a dozen city and state representatives and union officials are demanding the funds from all levels of government to be allocated as soon as possible.

These funds are separate from the billions of dollars needed to simply bring all of the city’s public buildings up to code.

“We formed this coalition because we know it’s not enough for us to simply call attention to the inhumane school building conditions faced by too many of our children and educators,” said Philadelphia Federal of Teachers president Jerry Jordan. “We must also have a comprehensive plan to immediately address the environmental hazards plaguing our schools.”

According to the coalition, $170 million would adequately remediate various infrastructure and toxic-related concerns in schools, including more cleaning and maintenance staff; rodent and pest control; asthma control; accelerated and expanded lead-paint stabilization; window replacements; bathroom, electrical and lighting upgrades; and repairs to water leaks.

“Asbestos and lead are probably two of the most prominent positions we have in these schools,” said Philly AFL-CIO president Pat Eiding. “And when I go into a school and see pipes that are exposed, asbestos tiles breaking up and those kind of things and our kids are forced to go to school there…and my heart has to tighten up, because I know what this disease is that comes 10, 15 years later and have our kids have the possibility of breathing this when we know we can change this.”

While the team is still configuring the source of the colossal investment, Jordan says, as of now, funds will stem from all three levels of government.

Some of these funds, for example, could be sustained from Gov. Tom Wolf’s Restore Pennsylvania initiative, which, if passed by the state legislature in the upcoming weeks, will generate $4.5 billion through the monetization of a “commonsense severance tax” with funds designated for various infrastructure projects,including the remediation of public schools.

“Our children are our future,” said American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. “These conditions are immoral. They are outrageous, and we need to do everything we can to shame the public officials that do not stand up for our children regardless of where those children live.”

Seeking “creative ways” to support this $170 million funding, state Sen. Vincent Hughes suggested amalgamated efforts, such as last year’s more than $15 million in combined state grants and city school district funding, which continues to address toxic issues in up to 40 public schools around the city.

Hughes stresses, though, that this expenditure is merely a drop in the bucket.

“I just want you to think about a child sitting in a classroom with lead falling down on the desk,” Hughes said. “A child sitting in a classroom where’s there’s mold, where there’s rodent infestation or asbestos. Unclean – only because we’re not committed to the resources necessary to make it happen. They’re as equal as any other child in this state and in this country.”

Members of the growing citywide coalition include state Rep. Jason Dawkins, Philadelphia House delegation chairman; Councilman Mark Squilla; state Sen. Larry Farnese; and state Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler.

Serving as the oldest school in the city, Key Elementary, located in the Lower Moyamensing neighborhood, represents dire concerns students and teachers encounter in antiquated and menacing public schools around the city.

The coalition emphasizes that spaces such as this South Philadelphia institution are entitled to the same capital as the rest of the commonwealth.

“Our kids are as valuable as children who live in richer parts of our state…This is a matter of equity and social justice because we know that many of our children in Philly and here in South Philly – one of the most diverse places in the entire state,” Fiedler said. “We have many children of color here, and many children who come from immigrant families. These children, our children, are valuable, and at a bare minimum, they deserve to learn in a clean and safe building.”

Councilwoman Cherelle Parker shed light on the fact that the average Philadelphia public school is 66 years old, while the national average is 42. She also says more than 75 percent of them were built before 1969.

The coalition feels these aging conditions are unacceptable, considering the higher investments put into suburban Pennsylvanian public schools in the suburbs, such as Lower Merion Township.

“This means that we here in the city of Philadelphia have been telling our children that after receiving a public education, we expect them to be adequately prepared to compete in a highly technical, knowledge-based 21st century global economy,” Parker said. “But we’ve been sending them to learn in antiquated, outdated, 19th-century buildings that are technically deficient and in need of environmental remediation and don’t even talk about having at least an ounce of aesthetic appeal.”

Although funding sources are still being negotiated, the coalition says the purpose of the news conference was to make its vision seen and voice heard.

Moving forward, the team hopes to recruit more representatives of the city, state and federal government.

The emerging Fund Our Facilities coalition strives for their concerns to be heard all the way from the corner of 8th and Wolf streets.

“We are making a whole lot of noise here at the local level outside a fantastic school run by a great principal here at Key Elementary in the heart of South Philadelphia,” said Councilwoman Helen Gym. “And this is where we’ll take our stand and this is where we’re gonna take it all the way to Harrisburg and D.C. and not let anyone turn themselves away.”

gmaiorano@newspapermediagroup.com 

Twitter: @gracemaiorano

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