The Shapiro administration’s budget contains a $100 million line item earmarked for repairing environmental concerns in schools across the commonwealth like asbestos and lead paint, but Republicans are concerned that there is no single survey or estimate that clearly delineates the scope of the problem.
That issue came to the forefront earlier this week in a budget hearing with Shapiro’s nominee to run the Pennsylvania Department of Education, Dr. Khalid Mumin.
“This $100 million — how much of the big nugget [of work] are we chipping away at here?” asked Rep. James Struzzi, II, a Republican from Indiana County. “Is there a collective database of the needs?”
“When we’re dealing with environmental repairs, we do have different agencies that are in the mix also,” Mumin began, noting as an example that different state agencies might have partial data about asbestos..
“I know for sure we don’t have a database of every single facility or building that needs infrastructural work around these environmental repairs,” Mumin said moments later.
Struzzi went on to say without a clear picture of the overall needs, he was concerned the funds allotment could be distributed in a haphazard or inefficient manner.
The Shapiro administration did not address Struzzi’s specific concern when reached for comment, but also made an appeal regarding local control.
“Local school districts complete their own needs assessments, as they are in the best position to identify their communities’ needs and prioritize projects for remediation and repair. For example, Philadelphia has completed a district-wide assessment of their infrastructure in recent years,” said Manuel Bonder, Shapiro’s press secretary. “The Commonwealth’s role is to help support local districts in their efforts to create safe learning environments for their students and staff, not to take project decisions out of the hands of local districts.”
“This proposal is for a recurring investment over the next five years to help schools plan ahead and start major projects on the timeline that is right for them – and it is the largest investment of state general fund dollars in environmental remediation for schools in Pennsylvania history,” Bonder concluded.
Bonder’s link to the Philadelphia district-wide assessment creates its own set of questions.
The report was not created by the School District of Philadelphia, but by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers union in May 2021, and even that report noted it had tremendous restraints on obtaining solid information.
The PFT report noted that Philadelphia schools first hired a contractor in 2015 for a “Facility Condition Assessment” or “FCA” eventually released in 2017.
“In 2020, the District again contracted with [the research firm] to re-inspect all schools and to update the FCA assessments from six (6) years ago,” it said.
“The District has refused to disclose or provide any information related to updates to the FCA since 2017 or how/if they used the data for planning purposes over the past 4-6 years. Finally, they are now ‘updating’ the FCA survey work but without providing any information, data, or collaboration.”
The PFT analysis went on to criticize the district for concerns that sounded very much like Struzzi’s questioning in the budget hearing.
“The lack of the development, with direct and near-direct stakeholder engagement, in the creation of a ‘Comprehensive Educational Facilities Master Plan’ is a major problem that must now be fixed,” it said.
Bonder did not respond to a follow-up request for comment asking if the link he provided actually undercut his own premise.
“We recognize the need to help school districts face challenges relating to environmental concerns at their schools,” House GOP Appropriations Chairman Seth Grove said.
“But in order to address this, we need to understand what the total need is. The Department of Education should immediately produce a list of projects statewide. This list should be based on information from school districts – not teachers’ unions. Once we have this list, we can begin the work of addressing these needs through a statewide program that doesn’t play favorites.”
The School District of Philadelphia did not respond to requests for comment or for updated data based on the claims from the 2021 PFT report provided in Bonder’s response.
SDP, far and away the largest school district in the commonwealth, has struggled with environmental issues. For example, a page on the Philadelphia controller’s website shows the district has engaged in over 2,300 asbestos abatement or remediation projects since 2015.
A report in 2022 claimed 60 percent of water sources in SDP facilities showed some level of lead contamination, although district officials disputed those findings, saying it was “not an accurate reflection of the water quality that students and staff in our district are accessing each and every day.”
Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at email@example.com, or use his encrypted email at firstname.lastname@example.org. @shepherdreports