Testimony of Ella Schwalb to the BOE, January 30, 2020

Good evening. My name is Ella Schwalb and I am a teacher and co-building rep at McClure Elementary which was closed for 17 instructional days this winter. I want to talk today about legality and about trust as they relate to the longstanding environmental crisis in our schools.

Action item #22 indicates that the district is looking to engage Ballard Spahr law firm for “additional expertise” in legal matters. Compliance with legal regulatory standards might be enough in other districts, where there are true commitments to transparency, and healthier budget priorities. What I see here, through the lens of my experience advocating for a safe building at McClure, is an attempt to use poorly enforced regulatory standards as a shield against staff and parent participation, and consequently as a weapon of environmental racism.

The District consistently prioritizes efficiency over integrity, which compromises the quality of work done in the short-term, and is fiscally and ethically irresponsible in the long-term. School-based staff at McClure have knowledge of the building which proved essential in accounting for all potential asbestos exposures, not just the exposures that the district initially deemed “convenient” to address in its haphazard, reactive crisis protocol. Nevertheless, despite our proven expertise, the District has shut us out of meetings, and repeatedly made risky gambles with the health of our staff and students.

Throughout this process, staff and families at McClure have been demanding transparency and accountability from the District. In response, we’ve been told to lighten up and “trust their experts.” It’s hard to trust when the wounds are so deep, when our concerns were dismissed, and we were rushed back into an unsafe building. Trust is not built by saying they’ll do better next time, and then when next time comes it’s the same pattern of dismissal and cover-ups. This trust will not be built overnight, but if the District wants to know how to build trust with staff and families, it would make a lot more sense to engage our counsel instead of a corporate law firm’s.

So, what exactly is the “additional expertise” that Ballard Spahr law firm is supposed to provide? Where is the action item for humble collaboration with staff members and families to develop a trustworthy, sustainable, and scalable environmental safety plan? The district needs an honest, thorough analysis of how things have gone so wrong in the past, so that they don’t keep making the same mistakes as we work to move forward into a healthier future.

At this point, we—school staff, families and allies—are the new environmental safety improvement plan. And our experts’ demands will be heard by the public, whether we are invited to collaborate with the District or not. We will keep at it, stronger and more unified as we connect from building to building. So if anyone needs a minute right now to take a breath and talk to the lawyers behind closed doors, go right ahead. But the long-term solution is to keep the door open.