Rep. Schweyer and House Democrats call for more school construction dollars in state budget
HARRISBURG, Pa. - When school started at Francis Raub Middle School last August, Peggy Repasch complained the lack of air conditioning in the building put her daughter Zoey’s health at risk.
Raub was built in 1923 and doesn’t have central air or heat.
Zoey has cystic fibrosis, a genetic disorder that can cause thick, sticky mucus in the airways and also cause those afflicted to sweat high amounts of salt out of their bodies, prompting dehydration.
- House Democrats and education advocates call for more school construction funding from the state
- They are proposing $350 million dollars for facilities
- Some Allentown School District buildings date back about 100 years
“The heat takes a lot out of you,” Repasch said. “How are these children learning in this heat?”
House Democrats and education advocates say those kinds of conditions need to be addressed across the state immediately.
They are calling for lawmakers and the administration to invest in construction and maintenance needs for aging and deteriorating school buildings. Budget negotiations on the state’s next fiscal budget are ongoing among House and Senate leaders and the governor’s office.
The House version of the budget calls for investing $350 million dollars into school facilities, which is $250 million more than what Governor Josh Shapiro proposed. The House budget, which recently passed along party lines, is facing some criticism from the Republican-controlled Senate.
“But every year we have underfunded our schools gives us the worst kind of compound interest, deferred maintenance that grows exponentially as roofs aren't repaired, as masonry cracks and as boilers fail.”Dan Uverick-Acklesberg, an attorney with the Public Interest Law Center
House Education Chair Peter Schweyer, D-Lehigh, represents the Allentown School District. He said it’s nothing to celebrate that next year will be Harrison Morton Middle School’s 150th year in use. ASD has several schools that were built more than 50 years ago or more, including Jefferson Elementary School, constructed in 1910, and Central Elementary, which went up around 1925.
Schweyer said subsidizing building maintenance statewide is needed now.
“The quality of that building will have a dramatic and direct impact on that child’s ability to learn,” he said. “It’s really hard to teach things like computer literacy if you don’t have the internet. It’s really hard to teach a health class when the air that our children breathe is toxic.”
Dan Urevick-Acklesberg is with the Public Interest Law Center. He won a Commonwealth Court ruling earlier this year that the state was unconstitutionally underfunding poor districts. He says students’ right to a quality education includes safe school buildings with heating and cooling.
“But every year we have underfunded our schools gives us the worst kind of compound interest, deferred maintenance that grows exponentially as roofs aren't repaired, as masonry cracks and as boilers fail.”
Michael Kelly is an Allentown School District graduate and a principal with KCBA Architects. He said the state used to help school districts fund capital improvement projects until nine years ago, when that funding stopped. He said he hopes the Legislature will change its mind on that.
“I urge the commonwealth to resume funding of school facilities so that we can meet the investment of our children and provide an adequate experience including modern, safe, secure and healthy environments for them to learn,” he said.
One district suffering with severe deferred maintenance issues is the city of Philadelphia School District. It's been struggling to combat asbestos in many of its school buildings. According to data about asbestos on the school district's website, asbestos is not necessarily a hazard unless it’s been disturbed, then it can unleash toxic fibers into the air.
Eric Becoats, superintendent of the William Penn School District in Delaware County, said a survey of their buildings found that nine of the 11 schools were in poor condition that required immediate action. He said the price tag was $150 million.
“They are not equipped for the 21st-century academic spaces and experiences that our students need,” Becoats said. “This is the reality of our students’ experiences.”
The state Senate is scheduled to reconvene next week.