ABOVE PHOTO: State Sen. vincent hughes speaks to audience about the investment of $85 milion for school repairs.
The union leaders and legislators who comprise the Fund Our Facilities Coalition met on May 29 at Richard Wright Elementary School to announce legislation sponsored by State Sen. Vincent Hughes that would invest $85 million to make critical repairs to Philadelphia’s school buildings.
The dollar amount in Hughes’ companion bills –- SB 555 and SB 556 –- represent exactly half of the $170 million the coalition has said is needed to address immediate health and safety concerns, and to ensure every Philadelphia school building is safe, clean and healthy.
Funding for SB 555 would come in the form of a $125 million grant from several Commonwealth special funds with outstanding balances. SB 556 calls for a $125 million grant that would be funded from the current state budget surplus. With each bill, Hughes proposes directing $85 million to the School District of Philadelphia; $30 million to 134 school districts throughout the state with a significant number of students experiencing poverty; and $10 million to the remaining public schools in the state.
“We are in a position to fix a critical structural need and we cannot afford to lose this opportunity to provide thousands of teachers, students and school staffers with a healthy, safe environment each day,” Hughes said. “The investments I am proposing would help fund the critical maintenance and repair and provide those conditions. We must act now and repair the unhealthy and unsafe conditions for the future of our students and our education system.”
The legislation calls for school districts to use the grant funding solely for the kinds of emergency repairs identified by the Fund Our Facilities Coalition. These include lead and asbestos abatement or remediation; HVAC repair or replacement; electrical system repair or replacement, plumbing repair or replacement, roof and window repair or replacement; and other repairs or replacements that present a health or safety issue.
Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which convened the coalition, applauded the bill as a major step in the right direction.
“The bills sponsored by Senator Hughes send the message that the Fund Our Facilities Coalition is actively working and making real progress toward improving teaching and learning conditions in Philadelphia,” he said.
One sure “yes” vote for the bill will come from State Sen. Larry Farnese, who said SB 555 and 556 represent a “milestone” in the coalition’s efforts to improve school buildings.
“The development of a solid and workable plan to fund our facilities and provide long-awaited upgrades that our schools need, and our students deserve,” he said.
Several state representatives attended the press conference, including Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, a founding member of the coalition. Fiedler also announced that she will be introducing “companion legislation in the [PA] House to make this funding a reality for our schools.”
“Right now, our children spend their days in leaking buildings surrounded by lead, rodents and outdated electrical systems. This is outrageous and unacceptable,” she said. “I am so proud of the dedicated work that has brought us to this point. I would like to thank all of the coalition members and staff who are making Fund Our Facilities a reality.”
State Rep. Donna Bullock represents the neighborhood where Richard Wright Elementary, a school that has mold, asbestos and pest control issues, is located. She pointed out that when schools aren’t adequately and fairly funded, these inequities show up in overcrowded classrooms, underpaid teachers and crumbling schools.
“The state has a responsibility to provide the resources to make every school building a clean and safe environment,” she said.
Several members of City Council were also on hand to praise the work of Senator Hughes and the Coalition. Council President Darrell Clarke thanked Hughes and Fiedler for “pursuing a necessary course of action to ensure school buildings across the Commonwealth are safe for students, teachers, and support staff,” adding, “These bills must lead to the restoration of consistent, predictable PLANCON funding so that we never fall this far behind in our responsibility for Pennsylvania’s children ever again.”
The sentiments of all of the coalition members and press conference attendees were summed up by State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta.
“Our kids have waited long enough for learning environments that are safe and clean,” he said. Since the formation of the coalition we’ve worked at a state and local level to remedy the crisis in our schools. Now is the time to get it done and today’s announcement of significant money toward the outlined goal moves us in the right direction.”
For more information about the Fund Our Facilities Coalition, visit: www.PFT.org .