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January 21, 2023

School District of Philadelphia suing the city over building safety requirement law

Under the legislation one-third of the city's schools are required to be inspected for asbestos, water quality and lead paint by Aug. 1

Education Lawsuits
School District lawsuit Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

School District of Philadelphia filed a lawsuit against the city over a new special certificate of an inspection law. Under the law, one-third of the school buildings will be inspected for hazards such as asbestos and lead paint, which, the district says, could jeopardize opening the schools.

The School District of Philadelphia filed a lawsuit with the city over safety inspection legislation that could threaten the opening of schools this fall.

The law, which passed in City Council and was signed by Mayor Jim Kenney in June 2022, requires one-third of the school district's schools to be inspected for asbestos and lead paint and for the water quality to be tested by Aug. 1, with another third of schools tested in 2024 and the final third checked by 2025.

In a joint statement from City Council President Darrell Clarke and education committee chairperson, Isaiah Thomas said that the school district's decision to file a lawsuit rather than come up with a plan to ensure the safety of its over 200,000 students is unfortunate. 

"To respond to a plan to get rid of asbestos and other hazards with a lawsuit reinforces that the school district is working to maintain the status quo, rather than working collaboratively to bring our schools into the 21st Century,” Thomas and Clarke said via WHYY

The 21-page lawsuit argues that the city does not possess the authority to close schools.

"The bill was enacted even though the district already is subject to state and federal standards associated with the management of lead, asbestos, and other environmental hazards that are intended for the protection of health, safety, and welfare," the suit reads. It continues, "the bill purports to provide the city with the unfettered ability to dictate the district’s operational decisions and close district school buildings with little to no notice to the district. The city lacks the authority for such a broad over-regulation of the district’s operations. For the reasons that follow, the bill must be declared preempted, unconstitutional and invalid, and the city and its co-defendants must be enjoined from enforcement of the bill."

School board President Reginald Streater told the Inquirer the lawsuit is the culmination of years of build-up from underfunded budgets.

"Any action, even if well-intentioned, that threatens to remove children from in-person education will be met with the requisite response from the School District of Philadelphia and its Board of Education,” Streater said in a statement. The law, he said, “could needlessly threaten the opening of many district school buildings at the start of the next school year, jeopardizing the health, safety, and welfare of our students, especially those who rely on our buildings for shelter and services.”

The district said it has historically been responsible for its school buildings' operation, and the city's law is an overstep. However, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President, Jerry Jordan, expressed displeasure with the lawsuit. 

"Data and information-sharing, as well as remediation plans, have been spotty at best, and the bill passed by City Council allows a base layer of oversight into some of the most critical remediation processes,” Jordan said. 

The school board said they had improved over 200 buildings, including lead-safe certifications in 168 of the 217 schools. 

Former at-large City Council member Derek Green spearheaded the legislation in Sept. 2021 after two teachers from district schools dealt with the effects of asbestos at Science Leadership Academy-Beeber and Masterman. At the time, Green said that it was unfortunate that students and parents were not updated on the potential hazards in schools. 

Another former council member, Helen Gym, proposed a bill requiring district schools to install water fountains that would have lead filtration systems by 2025.

In October, the district received $5 million from the Environmental Protection agency it said it would use towards funding upgrade water systems in its schools.