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Philadelphia Teachers Sue Over Hazardous Buildings

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All right. The Philadelphia teachers union announced that it's going to sue its own school district this week. This is part of an escalating battle over lead and asbestos in classrooms. Six schools have already been shut down this year due to asbestos exposure. And the district is facing another lawsuit after a boy ingested lead paint chips that fell from his classroom's ceiling.

WHYY's Nick Pugliese has more on the challenges facing Pennsylvania's largest school district.

NICHOLAS PUGLIESE, BYLINE: Antoine Little has three children at T.M. Peirce Elementary School in North Philadelphia. He was furious when he learned district officials waited more than a month to address possible asbestos contamination in the gym. He talked about this at a news conference held by union officials.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTOINE LITTLE: It's 2020, and we're fighting an organization that should consciously just be doing what is right by the students and the staff of not just T.M. Peirce, but of every school.

PUGLIESE: Facing tremendous pressure from parents, the district eventually moved students to another site. But similar scenes continued to play out across the city. McClure Elementary was closed for asbestos remediation last month, opened last week and closed again two days later after more asbestos was found.

The teachers union demands in its lawsuit that the district perform periodic inspections and that environmental experts from the union be included. Union attorney Deborah Willig says the district can't be trusted to inspect schools on its own.

DEBORAH WILLIG: Because their testing has been flawed, their cleanup has been flawed. And they cannot - they should not do it without us.

PUGLIESE: In response, district spokeswoman Monica Lewis (ph) says the district proposed new procedures for conducting inspections last year and it hopes to work with the union to finalize those.

MONICA LEWIS: All of our students and staff members deserve that we stay focused on our efforts to improve environmental conditions in schools. And we will do just that.

PUGLIESE: Philadelphia's school buildings have an average age of 70 years, and fully cleaning them up would require a massive investment. A 2017 district study put the figure at $4.5 billion. So far, neither city officials in Philadelphia nor state lawmakers in Harrisburg have offered to fund those repairs.

For NPR News, I'm Nick Pugliese.

(SOUNDBITE OF ILL CONSIDERED'S "BUILDING BRIDGES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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