March 17, 2023–Philadelphia parents and community organizations went to court yesterday evening, seeking to intervene in a lawsuit by the School District of Philadelphia that seeks to overturn a City law allowing for greater oversight and transparency over asbestos and other major safety issues in school buildings.
Lift Every Voice Philly, PennEnvironment, and three district parents are represented by the Public Interest Law Center. In their motion to intervene, they seek to join the City’s defense of the law, opposing a lawsuit from the School District which was filed in federal District Court on January 20.
Facing an ongoing school facility safety crisis in Philadelphia, City Council passed legislation last year requiring the City to inspect all Philadelphia school buildings for asbestos. The law also created a new advisory board for building safety—which will include parents, teachers and other district stakeholders—and requires the results of inspections to be posted on a publicly accessible website.
In declarations attached to the motion to intervene, parents describe arduous efforts to obtain basic safety information about the schools their children attend.
Amara Rockar is a parent of two children attending West Philadelphia’s Lea Elementary. In 2021, after finding reports from the 2018-19 school year that showed asbestos containing material at Lea, Ms. Rockar sought to find out whether new inspections had since occurred, and what the results were. In her attempt to find this information, she submitted five Right-to-Know requests, attended two Board of Education Meetings, and communicated with several district employees, receiving conflicting and confusing information at every turn. Ultimately, the district conducted testing and detected no asbestos at Lea.
“I was only able to get answers and testing results about asbestos concerns in my children’s school after months of filing highly-specialized information requests, testifying at board meetings, and repeatedly taking time off work to go to district headquarters,” said Ms. Rockar. “With this lawsuit, the district seeks to preserve this adversarial, inequitable, and frankly indefensible approach to information access and transparency about asbestos in our schools.”
Laurie Mazer is a parent of two children attending South Philadelphia’s Coppin Elementary and a leader in Parents United for Public Education. She and another member of Parents United sought to view documentation of asbestos inspection in Philadelphia school buildings. District employees told them that they could only view partial documents in person, during school hours, and that taking pictures of the documents was forbidden, Ms. Mazer wrote in her declaration.
“I have been involved in collaborative processes where parents, caregivers, Union members and School District employees came together to fix problems like lead paint in our schools,” said Ms. Mazer. “It has been so disappointing to see that spirit of collaboration eroded over the years and to have the School District suing to keep parent input out of the safety of our schools. It is critical that we have transparency and a real seat at the table, which is why I have joined this case.”
Sonia Rosen is a parent of two children attending Science Leadership Academy at Beeber. Inadequate asbestos remediation at the school following a construction project delayed the start of the 2021-22 in-person school year by a week and forced students in the school’s middle grades to move to a different building for the remainder of the year—with parents given only a day’s notice.
“As an educator and a parent, I was appalled to hear that the District is not willing to comply with a law that offers the most basic protection for our children,” Dr. Rosen said. “Every child in every District building is ours to care for, yet over and over again I have watched District leadership shirk their responsibility to communicate clearly and honestly to families about building conditions. Thankfully, this law will hold their feet to the fire so we can all feel secure knowing that we have all the relevant information about asbestos in our children’s school buildings.”
Lift Every Voice is a member-based, Black-led organization of parents and community organizers committed to transforming Philadelphia schools by advancing racial, economic, and education justice.
“The children of Lift Every Voice members attend schools that are over 100 years old with known asbestos issues,” said Shanee Garner, founder of Lift Every Voice. “We support city action to ensure that all Philadelphia public school students and school staff have the basic dignity of learning and working in environments that don’t threaten their health.”
PennEnvironment, a statewide environmental advocacy group with 800 dues-paying members in Philadelphia, has been a consistent advocate for schools free of environmental hazards and helped found the Philly Healthy Schools Initiative.
“While schools are places where our kids go to learn, achieve, and make friends, far too often they face health hazards like asbestos, lead paint and other threats,” noted PennEnvironment’s Executive Director David Masur. “Yet instead of working to address these hazards, school district officials continue to put up roadblocks that threaten our kids’ health. That’s why we’re taking today’s legal steps to defend safeguards put into place by city officials.”
The average school building in the School District of Philadelphia is more than 70 years old, and decades of funding shortfalls, driven by inadequate state funding for public education, have resulted in billions of dollars in deferred maintenance. This has predictable, frequently disastrous, consequences for students and teachers in the district. In recent weeks, two Philadelphia School District buildings have been closed due to unsafe damaged asbestos. In one of the instances, the Superintendent has admitted that the District knew of the asbestos for two years without alerting students or staff, engaging in remediation, or closing the building.
“It is past time for the School District to focus on what parents want and students deserve: safe schools, and transparency,” said Caroline Ramsey, staff attorney at the Public Interest Law Center.
“It is clear that parents deserve easily accessible and up-to-date information about safety in their children’s schools,” said Sarah Kang, staff attorney at the Public Interest Law Center. “The City’s law helps provide this, and it should stand.”