Fix Philly schools: Meek Mill and friends offer vague ‘millions’; PA officials offer action plan

“Don’t just buy a school to say, ‘Oh, yeah, I bought a school,'” said one Philly parent.

Left: Pa. Sen. Vincent Hughes surrounded by other Pa. officials; Right: Meek Mill and Michael Rubin

Left: Pa. Sen. Vincent Hughes surrounded by other Pa. officials; Right: Meek Mill and Michael Rubin

Left: Layla A. Jones / Billy Penn; Right: Screenshoot/Breakfast Club
layla

When Meek Mill had an idea to enlist his rich friends and lend a hand to the Philadelphia School District, he posted it on Twitter.

The Philly rapper’s tweet was met with much fanfare, and several genuine bids for collaboration from local personalities already working on education reform, including GreenLight Fund Executive Director Omar T. Woodard, U School founder Neil Geyette and Pa. Senator Vincent Hughes.

“I’m down with Meek if he got some billionaire friends, good for him, okay?” Hughes said at a press conference on Friday. “If they want to get involved in this space, it can be very simple. We have a model, all it needs to be done is to be replicated.”

A day earlier, on Thursday, billionaire and 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin had announced he and Meek are committing an undisclosed amount of funds to an unreleased list of Pennsylvania schools. Whether or not Meek, 32, and Rubin, 47, will revamp a shuttered school building in Philadelphia remains unclear.

Speaking on “The Breakfast Club,” a popular New York City-based radio show, Rubin referred to an ambiguous Pa. tax incentive program through which they would route the schools funds. Asked by Billy Penn for details about the plan, a spokesperson declined to elaborate further.

Sen. Hughes, whose district includes parts of North Philly, was not about to wait. On Friday, he announced a plan of his own. It leans on tapping into unused state funds and following in the footsteps of a private-public school funding partnership to start repairing Philly schools now.

U School founder Geyette had mixed feelings about Meek’s proposal.

“I’m happy that he’s willing to leverage his resources to enhance learning where he’s from,” Geyette told Billy Penn, “but that shouldn’t be the case. Why do we need Meek Mill to talk to his billionaire friends about supporting a school?”

Saida Muhammad the mother of a 3-year-old daughter at Pratt Early Childhood Center, which was closed this week because of an asbestos emergency. She said Philadelphia schools need a longterm commitment from any celebrity who wants to be involved.

“Don’t just buy a school to say, ‘Oh, yeah, I bought a school,'” Muhammad said. “It’s one thing for a celebrity to say they’re gonna buy a school and actually be hands on, or just write the check and disappear. That’s easy.”

Hughes spokesperson Ben Bowens said preliminary attempts to meet with Meek’s team have so far failed to materialize. In the meantime, Philadelphia students and parents continue to be distressed by school building conditions.

Hughes: ‘There are solutions’ to the crisis

Last year, the Philadelphia Inquirer released an extensive and damning report about environmentally hazards in city education facilities.

Since then, “toxic schools” has become a rallying cry for reforming buildings plagued by asbestos and lead, not to mention those lacking proper air conditioning and heat or suffering from crumbling infrastructure.

A Keystone Crossroads investigation published last week revealed Frederick Douglass Elementary, a Mastery charter school, routinely failed to notify parents about lead-poisoned water for more than a decade. After asbestos was discovered in a North Philly school basement, parents were incensed at a plan to keep their children in the building during remediation. And a veteran Philadelphia teacher was diagnosed with mesothelioma this past August, likely a result of working in asbestos-filled school buildings for nearly three decades.

“We have solutions and we’re here to make sure that you understand that the public understands that there are solutions,” Hughes said at the press conference. “The response to this is, do we have the political will to make it happen?”

Hughes is the minority chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which regulates how the state doles out funds. His action plan plays on his point of power by proposing the transfer of funds from several pools of money, Health Enterprise Zones resources, the state rainy day fund and the venture capital fund.

The money would be used to fix environmental hazards identified by his office, including:

  • emergency repair and renovation of school buildings
  • sweeping lead testing of students
  • consistent medical monitoring of children and staff
  • personnel adjustments within the district

Another proposal from Hughes’ office involves tapping into private funds, similar to the call from Meek Mill.

Specifically, it calls on the state and Philly School District to “replicate the funding model driven by Drexel University for the new Samuel Powel/Science Leadership Academy School, which brought together $40 million of investments from state and local government, corporations, and foundations.”

For Muhammad, the Pratt Elementary parent, her first interaction with the Philadelphia public school system has not been positive.

“Now I have to find… a whole new building, new facility, new staff, new parents and new everybody to try to get my daughter to open up again, be comfortable again,” Muhammad said . “I feel hurt, I feel really hurt.”

This isn’t Hughes’ first foray into education policy — he’s a board member on the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency. In June 2019, about a year after the “Toxic Schools” report, Hughes introduced two bills to divert a total of $250 million to building remediation and renovation efforts across Pennsylvania, with $85 million of that dedicated to Philadelphia schools. Those bills are currently in committee.

“The senator is primarily focused on real-world solutions to the problem of toxic schools in this city,” Bowen, Hughes’ spokesperson, told Billy Penn. “That’s not to say that he wouldn’t be open to discussing ways an entertainer like Meek Mill or any of his ‘billionaire friends’ can help towards that effort.”

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