Testimony of Jessica Tilli to the Board of Education, September 19, 2019

Hi. My name is Jessica Tilli and I’ve been working at Meredith for over 10 years. I have served this community alongside my friend and colleague who was recently diagnosed with Mesothelioma and felt it was important to stand here and express the fear and concern that our staff and families have experienced in the wake of this tragic news.

At the school district’s press conference last week, our Chief Operating Officer said “We stand behind that our buildings are safe for our students and staff to come to every day.” So what does safe really mean? Those inside our schools know there are many hazardous conditions that exist without timely and proper response, including lead, asbestos, mold and more.

Aside from my friend’s diagnosis, there have been countless incidents where adults and children have reportedly become sick from the school they attend. Last week a student in a West Philly High School had to be taken by ambulance from school due to heat exhaustion. At SLA/BFHS there have been reports of students who have had to leave the school due to asthma attacks and other breathing problems. And we know there are children in many district schools who are being exposed to dangerous lead paint conditions every day.

How can we be reassured that our schools are safe when the facts tell a different story? How can we tackle this problem together when there is a great lack of clarity? If Meredith School was safe, why does our gym and first grade classroom need to be closed for an extended period of time in order to remove asbestos?

I strongly believe that every person in this room wants what is best for our city’s children. No one wants children or the people who serve them to work in unsafe, unhealthy buildings. Every school in the city, many in worse condition than Meredith, deserve the same attention and level of urgency as Meredith is receiving right now. EVERY child, regardless of their zip code, deserves the opportunity to grow in a nurturing environment; not one that poses risks to their health.

The challenges facing our District are great, insurmountable if we try to tackle them alone. We are proposing that the District work in collaboration with the union’s director of environmental science, school staff and families to ensure high quality assessments of every building. And once that audit is completed and made public, we want the District to work with all stakeholders on the development and implementation of a comprehensive plan. We know more money is needed, but a better approach is necessary too.

I’m also asking every board member to spend a full day in a classroom. Don’t just go for a tour. Go into a school on a hot day and spend it in a classroom that doesn’t have air conditioning and is overcrowded. Spend the day in a classroom whose building has known environmental hazards. And after that day, determine whether you would be comfortable sending your own child, grandchild, niece or nephew into that same classroom. If your answer is no, my hope is that we all collectively move to action because at the end of the day, if we cannot provide our students and staff with safe and healthy environments than we are a part of the systemic inequity that continues to plague our society. Dr. Maya Angelou said “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” We must do better.