Horace Howard Furness High School in South Philly received $1.1 million in abatement work from the latest installment of the Penn grant. (Nathan Morris for Billy Penn)

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As the School District of Philadelphia struggles to deal with asbestos in its aging buildings, administrators are making use of the University of Pennsylvania’s $100 million pledge to help with abatement of toxic materials.

A tiny portion helped pay for an inspection at Building 21, the West Oak Lane high school shut down last week when returning inspectors discovered exposed asbestos in the auditorium.

Penn’s grant is being delivered in ten annual installments meant for cleanup of asbestos, contaminated water, and lead paint. The district has not previously shared how it’s been allocating the Penn money, which has frustrated some parents, teachers, and union members. (Billy Penn obtained the data; you can search through it below.)

The first installment, which arrived near the end of academic year 2020-21, was mostly spent on “personnel and programs” to ramp up the process — including $3.7 million on testing and $2.6 million on staffing, according to documents obtained by Billy Penn — as opposed to actual removal of hazards.

“This is not the case for [the fiscal year 2021-22] contribution and subsequent contributions,” district officials wrote in their second annual report to the university. Last year, “the entire $10 million [was used] for activities directly attributed to abatement and stabilization.”

Mary Gray is the grandmother of a seventh grader at William Dick Elementary, where $298,000 of the 2021-22 funding was spent.

Gray regularly attends meetings between community members and the North Philly school, she said, but was unaware there had been recent asbestos remediation. Dick was the site of a “major removal project” twice in 2021, per city data, with another completed last month.

She wishes issues like this were better communicated. 

“It’s misleading because they have knowledge of it and they want parents to be involved, they’re not being a hundred percent real with us,” Gray told Billy Penn. “And I don’t think that’s right because if you want us to be a part of it, just be a hundred percent honest.” 

Jerry Roseman said he’s grateful for Penn’s gift — which others have criticized as a drop in the bucket compared to what the university would contribute if it had to pay property taxes — but he’s upset about the lack of transparency in how it’s being spent. 

“I don’t really know how they’re spending it, where they’re spending it, or on what they’re spending it exactly,” said Roseman, director of environmental science for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which represents 13,000 district employees. 

The union has no way of tracking how much asbestos is left in buildings and what still needs to be done, Roseman said.

An interactive map from the City Controller’s Office shows asbestos abatement projects in district schools from 2016 through the end of this calendar year, but does not include funding details.

Nearly $300k of the Penn grant was spent on remediation at the William Dick School in North Philly last fiscal year. (Elizabeth DeOrnellas for Billy Penn)

Putting data in the open

The annual reports on Penn grant spending are not online, but are available upon request, said School District spokesperson Christina Clarke. The documents were provided to Billy Penn after multiple communications and a reporter’s indication that they were filing a Right-to-Know open records request.

Sharing financial information with district employees is important, said Bruce Harris, the PFT union’s building representative at the Paul Dunbar School. “It helps to build morale, it helps to foster better working relationships from the top down.”

Harris is in charge of reporting issues at the North Philly school to the union. Yet he had no idea, he said, that Dunbar saw nearly $715,000 in spending to address environmental hazards during the 2021-22 academic year, per the Penn grant report.

Other schools that got major Penn-funded toxic abatement work last year include Furness High School ($1.1 million), Fox Chase School ($416k), and John Bartram High School ($309k). 

William Dick’s facility was built in 1953. The Dunbar building is over 90 years old. And that’s not the worst of it. 

Like Building 21’s Limekiln Pike home that was shut down last week, nearly four dozen district schools are in facilities built more than 100 years ago. 

The older the building, the more worrisome the asbestos issue. Most U.S. schools constructed before 1980 contain the mineral, which was widely used as insulation in ceilings, pipes, floor tiles, and other areas — until it was found to be a major carcinogen and banned. 

Asbestos is not necessarily a problem if it’s kept tucked behind walls, but when things start deteriorating, as they do in old buildings that lack proper maintenance, it can get into the air and be sucked into the lungs. From there, asbestos fibers can lead to cancer and other massive health problems, sometimes decades later.

Over the past decade, and especially after The Philadelphia Inquirer’s “Toxic City” series in 2017 and 2018, the Philly School District has closed dozens of schools to remediate damaged asbestos, sometimes more than once.

School officials faced criticism for not being proactive or thorough enough; in 2020, a teacher suffering from mesothelioma tied to asbestos exposure settled a lawsuit with the district for $850,000.

How many is too many inspections?

Under the federal Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act, known as AHERA, Philly school buildings must be inspected at least once every three years. 

A city ordinance passed last year mandates additional inspections at a third of schools each year. It also sets up an oversight board led by the Managing Director’s Office to determine if schools are following best practices for remediation. In January, the School District sued the city over the law, saying it “could needlessly threaten” the opening of school buildings and disrupt student learning. That case is pending.

Before he resigned to run for mayor, former Councilmember Derek Green was the sponsor of the inspection ordinance. Asked about Penn’s $100 million abatement pledge, he said he’s grateful for it.

“Penn, as a university, is an important actor in our city, and in order for our community to move forward we need to have resources to help our schools to do better,” Green told Billy Penn. 

All told, the district used the 2021-22 Penn installment for projects at 209 schools, per its report, including:

  • Asbestos abatement at eight schools to bring ventilation systems online
  • Lead-based paint stabilization at two schools
  • Lead and asbestos paint stabilization at five schools
  • Floor tile removal and replacement projects at seven schools.
  • Abatement and encapsulation of materials at the remaining 187 schools

The money was allocated based on various factors, including the location of hazardous material; whether or not the material could become airborne, ingested or wind up in a classroom; and whether or not the material can be repaired and managed in place, according to the report. 

District Superintendent Tony Watlington has committed to improving the district’s communication and accountability with families and the community as part of his three-phase plan to improve Philadelphia schools. 

Roseman, the union environmental science director, remains skeptical. “They all commit to doing that,” he said, “but that is not happening, at least on the facility and environmental side.”

School District’s FY 2020-21 report on Penn grant

School District’s FY 2021-22 report on Penn grant

This story is part of a yearlong reporting project with Temple University’s Logan Center for Urban Investigative Reporting on educational disparities within the Philadelphia School District.