The School District of Philadelphia is suing the city of Philadelphia, the city Department of Public Health and managing director Tumar Alexander over the city’s inspection bill for school buildings.
The district filed their lawsuit Friday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Manko Gold Katcher and Fox LLP in Bala Cynwyd will represent the district.
In the bill, the city Health Department or a testing agency certified by the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry would inspect school buildings every year for unsafe conditions.
“If allowed to stand, the law could 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,” said Philadelphia Board of Education president Reginald L. Streater, Esq. in a written statement.
“This law also puts us at odds with the federal environmental regulations governing every U.S. school district as well as local and state mandates. It further wrongly shifts our focus and resources away from efforts to meet those rigorous requirements. While we understand this law is well-intentioned, it will not make schools or our children safer,” he added.
The Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry will not issue a special certificate of inspection unless school buildings have been inspected for fire, safety, electrical, lead paint, water quality, asbestos and property-related hazards.
The inspection requirements would go into effect this year, with one-third of School District of Philadelphia-funded school buildings being inspected after Aug. 1, 2023, one third after Aug. 1, 2024 and the remaining third of district schools inspected after Aug. 1, 2025.
The district would also have to post inspection results to a publicly accessible website within 10 days of the results. The bill amends the Philadelphia administrative Code (Section A-703) and was passed by City Council on May 19, 2022 and signed by Mayor Jim Kenney on June 1, 2022.
In the lawsuit, the district is asking the court to declare the bill unconstitutional, stop the defendants from enforcing the bill and be awarded all fees and costs from the suit including attorney and expert fees.
According to the bill, the city’s managing director will identify any additional property-related hazards as well as the best practices regarding the identification and remediation of all property related hazards after considering recommendations from the Facility, Safety and Improvement Advisory group.
The advisory group will consist of a representative from the school district, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, Services Employees International Union Local 32BJ, Commonwealth Association of School Administrators Local 502, Philadelphia Home and Schools Council, Philadelphia School Advisory Councils, Laborers District Council of the Metropolitan Area of Philadelphia and Vicinity, International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Allied Workers Local 14, Philadelphia Building and Construction Trade Council and the Council of the City of Philadelphia.
A parent who advocates on environmental justice, health and construction, an expert on environmental testing and abatement who is not affiliated with the school district, and district students, who will serve in a non-voting capacity, will also be a part of the group.
“The law allows a City advisory board to set new opening standards for district-owned school buildings which house more than 130,000 students and 18,000 staff each school day,” Streater said in a statement.
“One of our concerns is this advisory board is allowed to consist of individuals with no specific scientific, technical or environmental expertise or licensing. The district would be required to accept and meet these standards before a building is allowed to open,” he added.
Over the years, the school district has had problems with environmental hazards including damaged asbestos-containing materials, peeling lead paint and mold.
The district owns more than 300 buildings and out of those, more than 40 buildings are over 100 years old. The average age of Philadelphia school buildings is over 65 years old.
Last year, district officials announced that more than 4,400 asbestos-related abatement actions in 241 buildings were completed. At least 168 schools have “lead safe” or “lead free” certifications.
The district has also installed more than 1,665 hydration stations and recently won a $5 million grant from the U.S. Environmental Agency to help the district reach its goal of having one hydration station for every 100 students within the next five years.
Streater said that while the district has had its shares of problems over the years, he said he believes the bill will disrupt the progress the district has made.
“Please do not mistake this lawsuit as an effort to skirt accountability or responsibility,” Streater said in a statement. “This suit should provide clarity and predictability.
“It should enable the district to focus its resources on the existing extensive federal, state and local regulations and on the goal we all share: maintaining nurturing, welcoming and safe school environments for all our children and staff,” he added. “There is more to be done and this law will hamper our ability to maintain this progress.”