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Exclusive: Superintendent William Hite Says Lack Of Financial Resources Chiefly Behind Asbestos Crisis In Philly Schools

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- Relief is coming to parents and students who attend Ben Franklin High School and Science Leadership Academy in Spring Garden. The shared school building reopens on Tuesday after being closed since October because of asbestos.

For several months, the School District of Philadelphia has wrestled with what has become a crisis involving asbestos across a handful of city schools.

Superintendent William Hite exclusively spoke with CBS3 on Sunday night.

The first question: From an administrative perspective, what went wrong?

"We have a lot of old school buildings here in the City of Philadelphia. In fact, any school that was built prior to 1978 is likely to contain asbestos, containing materials and lead paint and that is 80% of our schools," Hite said. "When you think about that and then you actually add to that years, or decades I should say, of not doing deferred maintenance and not having the resources or revenue to address capital issues, then you have these things that begin to happen."

It's a staggering statistic. Four out of every five schools in the city are now dealing with asbestos.

Why did the crisis seemingly explode this school year?

Hite says decades of deferred maintenance for one and there has been little-to-no money to tackle the costly problem.

"As we begin to focus on those things and inspect buildings now on a more regular basis, the inspections are working," Hite said. "We are finding these issues. And when we find these issues, we are either repairing those issues as quickly as possible or if we can't repair them quickly, we're containing the areas. And if we can't contain and/or repair -- in some cases we have to move children out of the facility into another facility while work is being done."

The district's response has been upgraded to an urgent status.

Inspections across all schools are completed. There are 10 school buildings with imminent hazards with all but one being presently addressed. In that instance, the affected area has been sealed off.

"It is a priority and that's one reason you're seeing the children be located. We are trying to relocate young people and staff members so we can address these things as quickly as possible and get back to some normalcy. The reason we started inspections was to find these issues. I know it's a perfect storm. We have apps for people to report, we have a hotline. As soon as we know about those things or hear about those, we try to get people to that place in 24 hours."

The Philadelphia's teachers union has, at times, been at odds with the school district over its handling of asbestos.

Members and some state lawmakers rallied Thursday, calling on Gov. Tom Wolf to declare a state of emergency to release more money to address the issues.

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