Students deserve PCB-free schools
Apr 26, 2011 | 7883 views | 0 0 comments | 125 125 recommendations | email to a friend | print
How many Department of Education employees does it take to screw in new, PCB-free light bulbs in city schools? Who knows, but apparently it'll take them ten years to get the job done.

That's the length of time the city has estimated it will need to replace light fixtures and windows contaminated with high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), toxins that were common in building materials used in the construction of schools before 1979.

A 2009 Environmental Protection Agency report found that hundreds of schools in New York City, had PCB-laden lighting and window panes. The trace amounts of harmful toxins discovered were significantly higher than the agency's limit, and sparked outrage among parents.

In February the city rolled out its multi-pronged, year-plan plan of attack. The idea is to conduct energy audits and toxin tests inside of schools, then retrofit outdated buildings with new lights, boilers and other equipment. This represents a solid response, but the timeline is way off.

Why should it take a decade to get this done?

As elected officials and parents pointed out at a recent meeting on the topic, shouldn't the health and safety of students be the DOE's top priority? It is, of course. But you can't blame parents, teachers and students for losing site of this fact when they're told it will take so long to clean up their schools.

The DOE should implement a very aggressive testing strategy, to identify all of the necessary infrastructure improvements as quickly as possible. Remember, this isn't rocket science; the federal government has already identified the areas of contamination.

Now it's a matter of dedicating the resources to root it out.

Yes, it'll cost money. But so does reorganizing, expanding and building new schools, something the city has continued to do straight through the recession. So there must be some way to push the PCB cleanup to the top of the education department's to-do list.

For new Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott, this represents a big opportunity.

So far he's gotten widespread praise for his knowledge of the city's public school system. (Certainly in comparison to his predecessor, Walcott is a welcome change in this regard). And he scored points right away for commitment to increasing parent involvement in school, something that has been sorely missing for the past several years.

But he also drew criticism for supporting the Bloomberg Administration's preference for a test-based curriculum. That disappointed a large constituency of parents and educators. With the pending PCB cleanup Walcott has an easy chance to implement the type of reform everyone is looking for. All he needs to do now is hit the fast-forward button.

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