“Serpico of the Schools” Fights Asbestos and the System

For fifteen years, John Kielbasa–who is a maintenance worker for the NYC school system–has been reporting loose, friable asbestos in the various buildings. The problem is that the “standard operating procedure” consisted of making a telephone call to a “supervisor.” No written records were made, and no proof was ever kept. According to his attorney, Pete Gleason, this system was more than incompetent and obsolete–it was downright criminal. Some New York schools were closed in the early 1990s because of asbestos, and the school district has successfully brought legal action against the manufacturers of asbestos-containing building materials. However, Kielbasa has recently learned through a connection inside the NYC Law Department that the money recovered in these lawsuits has been placed into the general fund, and has not been used for asbestos abatement.

After a change from a telephone notification system to a fax-based one failed to produce any kind of real action on the asbestos problem in NYC school buildings, Kielbasa took matters into his own hands. He collected friable asbestos samples from the buildings in which he worked and sent them to a lab for analysis. When the samples came back positive for asbestos, Kielbasa presented them to the NYC Department of Education’s asbestos coordinator, George Palermo. Instead of dealing with the problem, Palermo expressed his feelings to Kielbasa by raising his left fist and extending his middle finger in the ancient gesture of contempt. Kielbasa took a snapshot of Palermo’s one-fingered salute, and now the NYC DOE is taking legal action against Kielbasa.

In response, Kielbasa’s attorney sent the results and documentation of the asbestos problem to five NYC officials–only one of whom decided the situation was serious enough to warrant further action. NYC comptroller William Thompson has now notified Richard J. Condon, a former police commissioner who now serves as Special Commissioner of Investigation for New York City Schools. As far as the other five officials are concerned, Gleason said that if they are “…not part of the solution then they are part of the problem and perhaps should find a different line of work.” John Kielbasa has also offered to conduct his own investigation under Condon’s supervision. In the meantime, the situation has escalated: a complaint has now been filed with the U.S. Department of Labor.