Philadelphia teachers union sues school district over asbestos

By KYW Newsradio 1060

UPDATED: 3:05 p.m.

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) is taking legal action against the School District of Philadelphia for the way, the union says, it has been handling asbestos problems at several schools. 

At least six schools have had to temporarily close this school year due to asbestos abatement, most recently, Alexander McClure Elementary in Hunting Park.

The school closed for cleanup efforts and reopened last week — only to close again a few days later.

The district said asbestos levels in the building were safe, but PFT said that wasn’t the case. In contrast, PFT said its own independent air tests found "alarming" levels of airborne asbestos. The union said an attic, which was sealed off with plastic for summer remediation, was breached, exposing several classrooms.

Parents and teachers joined PFT in a press conference Monday morning to announce the lawsuit.

In it, PFT asks the court to make sure its environmental expert has access to all district information related to asbestos in school buildings. It also requests that the district cannot test buildings without the PFT, and that PFT must give approval before any schools affected by asbestos are reopened.

“Not only is the process by which the district deals with known hazards extraordinary flawed, but also from the start they are missing even identifying extremely hazardous conditions,” said PFT President Jerry Jordan.

Stefanie Marrero, a parent, said at the press conference that the asbestos problem has made its way from the school to her home.

“I have three children at Richmond Elementary, three of which now have respiratory issues due to the asbestos in our schools,” she said. “I've taken my children out because of this issue.”

She said she'd rather face truancy charges than put her kids in danger.

“Education is important, but I'm sorry, my children's health is more important,” she added.

At a rally outside McClure Friday, teacher Rachel Boeshen said the district’s priorities were not in order.

“It makes me feel as though the district cares more about the test results of their students than they do about the lives and health of their students,” she said. “Over and over and over again, the district is failing us. The district is not following through on what they need to do.”

Regarding McClure, the district said in a statement that PFT has been sitting on proposed joint procedures to deal with asbestos. 

In a statement, PFT's Jordan said it was fitting that they announced legal action on Martin Luther King Day, since, he says, there is an example of “profound racial injustice.”

“What we've seen time and again is the District's willingness to throw caution to the wind and as a result put children and educators at risk,” he said.

PFT lawyer Deborah Willig says their suit is to ensure that moving forward, the asbestos problem is handled properly.

"Their testing has been flawed. Their cleanup has been flawed, and they cannot, they should not do it without us. We are the safety net," she said.

The federation says they are hoping a Common Pleas Court hears the case by the end of the week.

"Our hope is that we can focus our collective efforts on finalizing the processes and protocols document we proposed to the PFT in November and genuinely working together — without distractions — to address environmental issues effectively and with the urgency our students and staff deserve," the district said in a statement in response to the lawsuit.

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KYW Newsradio's Justin Udo contributed to this report.