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August 03, 2023

School District of Philadelphia, city settle lawsuit over asbestos inspection law

By next August, all schools will be inspected twice each year. The findings will be published online within 2 months

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Philly Schools Asbestos Inspections Lawsuit Thom Carroll/For PhillyVoice

The School District of Philadelphia has agreed to begin inspecting its buildings every six months for asbestos by August 2024 as part of a settlement reached with the city. The district had sued the city over a 2022 law that required it to inspect one-third of its buildings by August 2023.

The city government must pay the School District of Philadelphia $2.5 million to improve improve the timeliness and transparency of its reports on school asbestos inspections, and to better manage asbestos data, as part of a settlement reached Wednesday. 

The settlement resolves the lawsuit the district filed in January challenging a 2022 law that required the district to inspect one-third of its school buildings for asbestos, lead paint and water quality concerns before the upcoming school year and post online the results of all inspections soon afterward. It gave the city the power to close schools that were not certified as being in "substantial compliance" with best practices for asbestos management within the previous three years and four months.

As part of the settlement, the city agreed not to close non-compliant schools unless they pose an imminent public health or safety threat. The city also may fill an advisory panel created by the law to examine environmental issues within the district. It will include representatives from City Council, the teacher's union, parent groups, labor unions and students, among others.

By next August, the district will begin conducting asbestos inspections in all school buildings every six months. By next June, reports will be published online within two months of inspection. Each report will contain detailed information about asbestos abatement efforts in each building. 

During the last school year, six schools closed due to exposure to damaged asbestos, which can be toxic. At the time, district officials acknowledged that the toxins were "misidentified" as safe while sitting in school buildings for years and that they weren't sure how many schools could be impacted by that misidentification.

"The resolution of this lawsuit reflects the city and school district's shared priority of maintaining safe and healthy schools for students and staff while minimizing learning disruptions due to building closures," said Mayor Jim Kenney. "The city is grateful to our partners in public health and education for their collaboration in reaching this agreement. This is a significant step forward in enhancing efficiency and transparency in school facility inspections." 

The 2022 law required one-third of the city's school buildings to be inspected for asbestos, lead and water quality by Aug. 1, with another one-third tested in 2024 and the final slate tested in 2025. It was largely a response to concerns about asbestos raised by teachers and parents at Science Leadership Academy-Beeber and Masterman in 2021.  

Federal law mandates that schools be inspected for environmental hazards every three years; schools where asbestos has been found must undergo six-month examinations. The district has been behind on its inspections due to lack of staffing and resources, but the city agreed to help recruit and train inspection teams as part of the settlement. 

The most recent three-year inspection was completed in July, with all school facilities having been inspected for asbestos at least once over the last academic year, according to district officials. Under the settlement, every building will have at least one asbestos inspection during the upcoming academic year. 

"This lawsuit by the district has always been about what's best for our school communities," said Reginald L. Streater, president of the Board of Education. "This resolution provides more clarity around how schools will remain open and how the city's ordinance will be implemented. Students and staff can return to school with confidence in the district's asbestos management and our unwavering commitment to fostering safe and healthy school environments." 

The settlement did not address a proposal by Councilmember Isaiah Thomas to create an independent authority to handle repairs and new construction projects. A hearing held Wednesday included remarks from national experts and Philly students.

Superintendent Tony B. Watlington and Streater took no official position on the proposal during the hearing, but they acknowledged that the school district can't handle the problems with its facilities alone, the Inquirer reported.