Portland Public Schools officials have known about lead in the water at some of their schools since at least 2012, according to emails obtained by OPB.
The emails show the district has been dealing with possible elevated lead exposure to students and teachers long before recent revelations that two schools tested above the district’s safety standards.
After questioning from a parent of a Rigler School child in 2012, PPS spokeswoman Erin Barnett said in an email that the school knew about lead problems, and advised students and staff not to drink out of classroom sinks.
“The reason for this practice is because the plumbing in many of our schools is old and, in some cases, lead levels above the acceptable standard have been found in the water in our schools,” Barnett said.
At the time, Barnett said PPS had installed filters on fountains that “tested above the acceptable standard for lead, rendering the water in our drinking fountains safe.”
Superintendent Carole Smith said Tuesday she thinks it is standard practice for teachers to be informed not to drink out of classroom sinks, though she added that couldn’t be certain if that was the protocol.
Educators said it isn’t.
“If we’re not supposed to drink water from school sinks, why don’t teachers know about it? This tells me, there is no real district protocol around this issue,” said Gwen Sullivan, president of the Portland Association of Teachers.
The 2012 email from PPS to concerned Rigler parents said facilities staff would be placing multi-lingual “stickers” above questionable sinks and installing a water bottle filling unit on one of the drinking fountains at Rigler.
The parent who sent the emails to OPB said that water filling station never appeared.
Willamette Week also reported Tuesday it had obtained water testing data that shows the district had known about lead problems in 2010.
School officials said they are reviewing that data.
With the latest lead findings at Creston K-8 and Rose City Park schools, Smith said the district is going to take more extensive action.
Smith is proposing a three-pronged response. It includes hiring two sets of outside consultants and establishing a new “healthy water task force.”
“I want that in terms of people with high credibility, because I feel this has been a clear violation of public trust,” Smith said Tuesday, “and the real need to have credible voices from the community who are informing what our practices are, going forward.”
The superintendent said one of the investigations will focus on why she wasn’t alerted to the lead issue.
“There’s a concern to me that that did not filter up as being significant information that needed to come up through the chain, nor did it go to families,” she said.
Another consultant would review the district’s practices going back to 2001 — the last time Portland Public tested all its schools.
Smith said the district has a budget of $450,000 to address any changes needed to make water safe before the next school year, but more could be spent if necessary. She said there isn’t enough money available for putting new pipes in schools, but more water filters and fixtures will likely be installed over the summer.
Smith said district leaders are eager to fix the issue, but could have done more to identify problems in the water system.
“The degree to which we were really saying, ’Right now we need to be doing a district-wide look again,’ was a proactive intent back in preparing this budget,” Smith said. “Right now, would I be saying we should have been doing more? Sure I would, absolutely.”