‘A once in a lifetime opportunity’: House, Senate Dems want to use stimulus cash to address lead, asbestos in Pa. schools

By: - June 16, 2021 3:52 pm

State Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, D-Philadelphia, speaks at a Capitol news conference on Wednesday, 6/15/21 (Capital-Star photo by Shaniece Holmes-Brown)

Democratic lawmakers in the state House and Senate say they want to spend $600 million in federal stimulus money to fix public schools from Scranton to Philadelphia inundated with lead and asbestos.

Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, D-Philadelphia, spoke at a press conference Wednesday to demand that the funds be used to address public schools’ financial need to eliminate lead and asbestos, giving students and staff a healthier learning environment. 

She was accompanied by Sen. Vincent Hughes, of Philadelphia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, who also supports the proposal.

“The American Rescue Plan dollars represent a pivotal once in a lifetime opportunity to save lives, create jobs, and invest in our infrastructure,” Fiedler said, using the official name of the federal program.

Pennsylvania received $7.3 billion in funds from the stimulus bill, passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden. Democrats and Republicans have sharply different visions of how to spend the federal money.

Democrats have called for spending the money this year on programs ranging from employment to public health, while Republicans have argued to hold onto the dollars to fill future budget deficits.

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But Democratic lawmakers say that using the funds now on school repairs will spare hazardous effects of the two neurotoxins on students and staff. 

Eleven Philadelphia schools have been partially or fully closed due to asbestos contamination, according to Abestos.com.

The Philadelphia School District needs $125 million in new funding to fix the lead and asbestos contamination, Superintendent Dr. William Hite, Jr. said in an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The Scranton school district also has struggled with asbestos, which led to former district employees filing a lawsuit charging that officials knew of the contamination as early as 2016 and failed to report it or inform the public, NBC News reported.

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“When our children and their teachers have to worry about what toxins they’re breathing or drinking, I call that a public health crisis. Our kids have enough to worry about as it is,” state Rep. Kyle Mullins, D-Lackawanna, said Wednesday.

The proposal is also backed by the Philadelphia and Scranton branches of American Federation of Teachers, and the larger Pennsylvania State Education Association.

The topic has been on Harrisburg’s agenda in recent years.

In 2020, Gov. Tom Wolf proposed using more than $1 billion in state funding to reduce the risk of lead and asbestos in public schools through various programs and initiatives. 

Wolf also launched the Lead-Free PA Initiative in 2019 as an attempt to increase access to blood testing for children, training for lead abatement professionals, and local response efforts. These resources are meant “to build a better, healthier Pennsylvania,” Wolf said in a statement at the time.

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Shaniece Holmes-Brown
Shaniece Holmes-Brown

Shaniece Brown is an alumna of Lincoln University of Pennsylvania, with two Bachelor's degrees in Mass Communications and English. A native of York, Pa., she is the eldest of three children, the first in her family to go to college, and is pursuing a career as a journalist. Readers may follow her on Twitter @Spoken_Renee98.