House, Senate Democrats call for repairs to hazardous, toxic schools across the commonwealth

HARRISBURG, Feb. 19 – State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Phila./Montgomery) and Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler (D-Phila.) were joined by several Democratic House and Senate members from across Pennsylvania on Friday to call for repairs to hazardous and toxic schools across Pennsylvania.

Sen. Jim Brewster (D-Allegheny/Westmoreland), Sen. Judy Schwank (D-Berks) and Rep. Kyle Mullins (D-Lackawanna) pointed to public school buildings in their districts in desperate need of repair during the virtual news conference. The legislators spoke in support of recently unveiled proposals in the House and Senate pushing for significant investment in school infrastructure.

“Today’s event addressed conditions in schools all across the commonwealth, and make no mistake, these same hazardous and toxic conditions exist in communities represented by the Republican caucuses,” Hughes said. “Rural, suburban and urban communities alike face daunting challenges because of our aging public school buildings. We cannot wait any longer to act. I am grateful to my colleagues for their support on this legislation, as well as the awareness they are helping raise for this important issue.”

The first proposal would expand the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program by $1 billion to help address health hazards in public school buildings across Pennsylvania. Gov. Tom Wolf put forth the RACP proposal as a top priority in his recent 2021-22 budget address.

“Our schools were already dangerous places for students, educators and staff before the pandemic hit,” Fiedler said. “As we seek to make schools safe in the age of COVID, we are determined to also remediate the lead, asbestos and other toxins. Our coalition is powerful. Together, we are committed to investing state dollars in our public buildings and giving communities across Pennsylvania the schools they deserve!”

The second proposal would create the Public School Building Emergency Repair and Renovation Grant program, distributing grants to public schools for emergency repairs, including 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. This proposal would rely on federal funding provided through the American Rescue Plan.

“Safe and healthy school environments are vital to the success of our students, teachers and staff,” Brewster said. “As a former educator, I know firsthand the importance of a safe environment for a student’s physical health and academic achievement. While touring schools throughout the district and discussing concerns with numerous school officials, it is evident that assistance in bringing our public school buildings up to date is a top priority. The proposals discussed this morning will give districts the opportunity to make these necessary upgrades.”

Pennsylvania has some of the oldest school buildings in the nation. Most school buildings were constructed between 1950 and 1959. More than 200 buildings constructed prior to 1950. The aging buildings pose many health hazards including lead in the drinking water; asbestos in cracked floor tiles; mold outbreaks in classrooms; broken boilers in the winter; and no air conditioning in the summer.

“Pennsylvania students’ ability to access a quality education is fundamental to our Commonwealth’s future,” Schwank said. “But how can we expect our students to learn if they are in unfit and unsafe classrooms? Too many schools were in terrible physical condition even prior to the pandemic. They should have been repaired long ago, and now we are facing a crisis. If we truly want to provide a safe environment for our students, faculty and staff, these bills must be passed.”

The legislators said they are hopeful to gain bipartisan support for the initiative to repair schools statewide. Beyond the clear benefits in creating healthier, safer schools, they point to the potential economic impact from the jobs that would be created as a result of the infrastructure investment.

“No child’s health, safety or the quality of their education should be safeguarded any less simply because of what school district they happen to live in,” Mullins said. “It is long overdue that state leaders finally rectify these chronic inequities across our school districts and recognize these as matters of civil rights and public health.”

In 2018, the Public School Building Construction and Reconstruction Advisory Committee released the PlanCon final report. The legislature has not funded programs to address the facilities issued raised in the PlanCon report. Conditions in many districts have worsened, and become more costly, as a result of inaction.

Click here to watch the full news event.