Open Letter to Dr. Hite Regarding School District Facility Issues

Dr. William Hite
Superintendent, School District of Philadelphia


Dr. Hite:

We, Parents United for Public Education, are deeply concerned with multiple aspects of the facility issues notification process, clean up procedures, and lack of parental involvement in the district’s latest school closures. There is a continued lack of transparency around how hazards are identified, and the procedures for and outcomes of the testing that deems that threats have been cleared. We have spoken with parents in the affected schools about the information given to them by the facility managers and they have expressed similar concerns.

As members in the Philly Healthy Schools Initiative coalition, we are attempting to work with your staff to develop effective information sharing, communication, transparency, and stakeholder involvement. We are aware that there is a great deal of poor communication and miscommunication between the district staff and the school communities. There are also noted inconsistencies between the individual environmental inspectors who are tasked with identifying “imminent hazards.”

In addition, there is a general lack of forethought and planning for how to answer logical questions and provide information regarding the health and welfare of individuals in the school communities impacted by these closures or remediation work. As we have seen over and over again in person and in reporting on these issues, the front line district officials are not adequately able to inform parents and teachers about the level of exposure or any potential medical follow up required. The recently published informational videos with the expert from Drexel do not address these issues, instead providing only the most basic of general information about asbestos, and are not a solution to the communication problems the district has had in this area.

In September, the district told the public that the school buildings were “safe.” This was clearly a false statement. After closing a 9th school for emergency asbestos abatement, there appears to have been a rush to open FLC, McClure, and possibly other schools, even when there has been no effort to clean an HVAC system which has been ignored for decades (in the case of FLC) or to meet the agreed upon requirements for testing (in the case of McClure). These are immediate health hazards and need to be fully corrected. It is very clear that regular timely maintenance had not been done for many, many years at FLC, and it’s clear that the necessary work and testing at both schools hasn’t been sufficiently prioritized. Why is this negligence continuing?

In yet another example of unacceptable practices, Carnell Elementary was closed due to a severe increase in imminent asbestos hazards throughout the school identified by a second inspector despite being recently cleared by the first inspector. The Asbestos Best Practices states that between “2-5 TEM [must] be conducted based on the amount” of this “major friable” abatement. Yet, the decision to reopen was made after only one air quality test performed in the basement. It appears from this and the recent events at other schools that this district is not even following its own stated practices to keep it’s school communities safe.

What has been happening with regard to critical school building issues (mold, asbestos, lead, HVAC) is unacceptable. The rush to take care of individual problems in individual schools means there is no transparency, little planning, a true lack of accountability, limited reporting on what is being fixed and what the fix looks like, and insufficient direct communication with parents.

The lack of district communication and adequate testing has led to a lack of trust in the district’s ability or desire to keep students and staff safe.

We demand:

  • Prioritization of asbestos work that includes stakeholder input, participation or involvement in how priorities are set.
  • A standardized set of inspection/evaluation methods, practices or procedures across schools that is implemented with consistency between inspectors.
  • Inclusion of parent and teacher representatives in the FAC/Principal walkthrough process, follow up environmental inspection activities, and development of a summary report that includes recommendations and an action plan.
  • All reports and methods made available to parents and to the public, translated into multiple languages, and in clear, easy to understand language.
  • Transparent communication that includes:
    • Clear confirmation of school safety after a remediation that includes detailed test results
    • Explanation as to why some schools are open while others are closed during remediation that is fact-based, not reliant on trust in district leadership or contractors
    • Clear criteria for future remediation that dictates when schools are to remain open or be closed
    • Address school community health fears without patronizing or talking down to parents and that realistically and appropriately addresses the level of risk from exposures to asbestos and other environmental health hazards present in the school
    • Timely updates to the website pages related to school environmental concerns many of which contain misinformation and broken links.

We are extremely concerned that these schools are not outliers, but just the first ones. We know that there are nearly 200 Philadelphia schools that have likely asbestos issues that could be causing harmful exposure to asbestos. The district’s response to this point has been haphazard, flatfooted, misleading, and alarming to parents, staff, and students. This is a process. Though we understand that we have only just begun, we are stunned by the lack of transparency, poor leadership, and unprofessionalism that have persisted through these facility emergencies.


Leadership, Parents United for Public Education