Testimony of Kathleen Butts to the BOE, November 21, 2019

I am speaking to you this evening as an SLA parent who sees the inequities in how the district is managing asbestos abatement.

About two years ago, I worked with a group of parents to start a grassroots movement called Love for Philly Public Schools. We created a social media and signage campaign that stated, “We love our Philly public schools…ask us why?” Faced with constantly hearing negative stereotypes and assumptions about our neighborhood schools, we worked tirelessly to spread the word about why we chose to send our kids to district schools. Only now, when people ask what school my daughter attends and I try to tell them about it, all they ask is isn’t that the school that was shut down because of asbestos—and to be honest, I no longer know what to say. So I, like many parents, turned to the School District of Philadelphia for answers and support, but sadly district staff mishandled this process and many members of the board remained silent. And then, about a month later, the full reality of the district’s lack of urgency and systematic neglect surrounding the health of our kids became clear. In an October 28th article in the Inquirer which asked why the asbestos exposure at Pierce Elementary was not handled more quickly, a district spokesperson was quoted as saying, “we did not have the capacity to do so at this location.” To me this sounds like the district is prioritizing schools, and let’s be frank, they did have the capacity to address the safety issues at SLA and Meridith—although be it haphazardly.

I could go on about how poorly this process has been handled and about how this week’s Environmental Safety Plan is too little too late, but instead I will use the rest of my time to summarize some of the many things that families are demanding:

  1. Make sure the kids at Pierce are safe NOW–not next week or next month. It has been nearly 3 months, and please ask yourselves, would this be an acceptable timeline if it were your child’s school?
  2. The board should host on-going listening sessions for the families of all asbestos impacted schools to ensure that families have a way to voice their concerns and needs. Three minutes at a board meeting is almost inconsequential and not all schools have the privilege of having a task force like SLA.
  3. Take immediate steps to ensure that the students at relocated schools have access to the same level of education and classroom resources that they had before their schools were closed. This is especially important for CTE programs.
  4. Provide additional levels of staffing as needed for schools that have been relocated. This is imperative because key staff are now working several hours a day at added transit stops or in unfamiliar hallways and this is crating shortages that are impacting the daily functioning and well-being of school buildings.
  5. Provide security officers to create a “safe corridor” to and from the temporary BFHS location and the Allegheny Subway Station. You need to talk to parents about this because it is inexcusable that this has not already been addressed, especially when additional security was provided at one of the relocated SLA sites.
  6. Provide full public access to the ACTUAL project timelines for ALL SCHOOLS—not just some—undergoing asbestos abatement. Periodic reports and posted updates do not provide full transparency–nor do they hold district staff to a higher and necessary level of accountability.
  7. And finally, speaking of accountability, the board needs to hold SDP personnel accountable for the safety of all kids in all schools. If you do not already, the board should have a subcommittee whose sole task is monitor the asbestos abatement in our schools.

We want to keep telling people why we love Philly public schools, but we cannot do this if we don’t have the backing of our school board that was appointed to provide a high quality, equitable, AND SAFE education for all students in Philadelphia.