PA House Dems Renew Push to Fix Pennsylvania’s Aging and Toxic School Buildings

Rep. Rob Merski (D-Erie) speaking in Harrisburg about legislation to fix Pennsylvania's aging and toxic schools on Wednesday, June 14, 2023. (Photo: Sean Kitchen)

By Sean Kitchen

June 15, 2023

House Democrats hosted a press conference on Wednesday asking for increased funding to fix Pennsylvania’s aging and toxic schools. Their budget includes $350 million to fix exposure to asbestos, lead, mold, radon, and weather.

Democratic lawmakers are making a renewed push for increased funding to repair aging and toxic school buildings across the state. They held a press conference on Wednesday to advocate for a new, $350 million funding package to address the issue.

Pennsylvania has some of the oldest school buildings in the country. Students and teachers in school districts such as Philadelphia, Allentown, Erie, and other cities across the state are exposed to lead, asbestos, mold, radon, the weather, and other dangerous conditions as school buildings continue to get older. 

As reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer, at least six school buildings in Philadelphia closed throughout March and April due to asbestos exposure. 

In 2020, WHYY reported on an $850k settlement the Philadelphia School District made with Lea DiRusso after she contracted mesothelioma, which is caused by exposure to asbestos. DiRusso spent 28 years teaching in South Philadelphia schools.  

In March, House Democrats, along with Sen. Tim Kearney (D-Delaware), introduced legislation to fund the state’s school construction program, known as PlanCon, to make vital repairs to Pennsylvania’s aging school buildings. The maintenance program is vital to repair roofs, HVAC systems, boilers, plumbing, and electrical wiring. 

House Democrats renewed those calls for capital funding ahead of the upcoming June 30 budget deadline at Wednesday’s press conference.

Pennsylvania has a budget surplus of $8 billion dollars and an additional $5 billion in the Rainy Day fund, and House Democrats are asking for $350 million to fund the appropriate upgrades.  

House Democrats sent their version of the 2023-2024 budget to the Senate last week, and Rep. Carol Hill-Evans (D-York) said “our proposal used Governor Josh Shapiro’s budget proposal as a starting point but went a step further by increasing funding for schools and school facilities repairs substantially.”  

Hillary Linardopoulos, the legislative director with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, noted that the students most affected by Pennsylvania’s deteriorating school buildings come from black and brown communities. 

“It’s the year 2023, and we are here once again having to make the case for why kids and educators deserve to learn and work in an environment that does not poison them,” Linardopoulos said. “The fact that it is even a discussion after what we have seen unfold in our school facilities over the past number of years is simply disgraceful.”  

Aging and toxic school buildings aren’t an issue that’s specific to Philadelphia. Rep. Robert Merski (D-Erie) spent 20 years teaching in the Erie School District. 

“In my own experience in the Erie School District, I’ve taught in buildings that are over a hundred years old,” Merski said. “I’ve taught in buildings with leaky roofs where a bucket is on the floor and that’s the fix until we can find money in the budget to patch up the roof. This same building, the exterior wall separated from the building and we had to move everybody to the east side of the building to the west side of the building because it was uninhabitable.”   

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  • Sean Kitchen

    Sean Kitchen is the Keystone’s political correspondent, based in Harrisburg. Sean is originally from Philadelphia and spent five years working as a writer and researcher for Pennsylvania Spotlight.

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