How fixing school buildings became ‘incredibly personal’ for one PA lawmaker

State Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler speaking at a Solar for Schools press conference at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg on June 5, 2023. (Photo: Sean Kitchen)

By Sean Kitchen

February 8, 2024

“Nothing prepared me for the moment when it became incredibly personal and we got the news that they found asbestos in my kids’ school, which is just a few blocks away from where I live,” State Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler said in an interview. 

Cleaning Pennsylvania’s toxic and aging school buildings is a cause State Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler (D-Philadelphia) has championed since she was elected to the Pennsylvania House in 2018, but that cause became personal last year when the South Philadelphia grade school her children attend closed because of asbestos exposure. 

“I’d worked on that issue for quite a few years as a lawmaker and it’s incredibly important to me,” Fiedler said in an interview with The Keystone. 

“Nothing prepared me for the moment when it became incredibly personal and we got the news that they found asbestos in my kids’ school, which is just a few blocks away from where I live.”

Her kids’ school was abruptly shut down while the Pennsylvania House was in session, and Feidler had to bring her children to Harrisburg in order to take care of them. Gov. Josh Shapiro, who proposed $300 million to clean toxic schools in the upcoming budget and $1.5 billion over the next 5 years, noticed it and remembered to mention it in his 2024 budget address. 

“A couple months ago, I had a meeting with Representative Fiedler in my office,” Shapiro said during his budget address on Tuesday. 

“I was a little surprised when she showed up with her two kids, who were in tow that day because their school was closed after asbestos was detected. I was happy to see Rep. Fiedler’s kids and I’m sure they enjoyed their time in the Capitol. But there are a lot of other families out there who would have had to miss part of a paycheck – miss a day’s work – because we didn’t do our part to make our schools safer.”

Fiedler described listening to that part of Shapiro’s speech as a “surreal moment.”

“When the governor mentioned my kids and their visit in his budget speech and my children were in Harrisburg with me that day, it was a session day and they came with me because their school had suddenly closed due to asbestos that the school district found and wanted to have the chance to remediate as quickly as possible,” she continued. 

Pennsylvania has some of the oldest school buildings in the country and students and teachers can be exposed to mold, lead paint, asbestos, dripping pipes, exposed electrical wiring, the weather, and a host of other factors. A former Philadelphia school teacher was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a deadly cancer caused by asbestos exposure, after working 28 years as a teacher. 

“The need to fund school facilities is something that’s been around for a long time and sometimes I think gets sort of caught up in Harrisburg as an issue that it’s kind of been around for a long time,” Fiedler said .

“The children who are six years old and sitting in classrooms right now today, they can’t wait five years, 10 years for us adults to figure this out and to fully fund our education system because in 10 years, they will be 16 and so much of their lives and their education will already have been wrapped up.”



Author

  • 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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